Open Thinkering


TB872: MCB and ‘being what we are willing to learn’

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

American anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson at a conference. This event was part of the 2004 Festival della Scienza, held annually in Genoa, Italy.

Mary Catherine Bateson was a social anthropologist and linguist, who is usually referred to by her initials (MCB) so as not to be confused with her father, Gregory Bateson. Her mother was Margaret Mead.

She summed up her ideas in her phrase that “we are not what we know but what we are willing to learn”. It turns out that I have already read the majority of her most-read work, Composing a Life (Bateson, 2001), which concerns the ways that women’s lives involve the constant construction of identity.

I can’t remember how or why I was prompted to read it, but would not have picked it up of my own accord, which chimes with what MCB expected:

[O]ur society tends to regard women as exceptions to the full human condition and men as representative, so it was somewhat mischievous of me to write a book about human beings in the form of a book about women, and some men have complained that they gained valuable insights about themselves from the book but would not have read it on their own.

Bateson (1994), quoted in Ramage & Shipp (2020, p.310)

It’s interesting to me that MCB explicitly mentions changing one’s values as being part of learning to learn — something she calls ‘deutero-learning’ — and that, actually, living in a democratic, multicultural society, depends upon this. Life is complex, ambiguity abounds, and it’s OK for us to be confused much of the time:

We are perhaps becoming nomads in what we care about, so that change and novelty have come to seem more important than continuity and tradition. If values once learned are to be kept flexible and adaptable, there is a need to learn to modify, question, and reintegrate existing values, not simply to discard them. The experience of learning some new value could be used to provide models for integrating new understandings into existing ones in other new situations. Many Americans can remember that the handicapped were invisible to them until they learned to include them in their thinking; can that memory help them to listen and respond differently to some newly recognized excluded group, and how far can the concept of access be generalized? Is there then deutero-learning (learning to learn) in the area of values? Something that is good in a given context can be a danger when the context changes. Today in particular, we live in a world of change, so that our values or the way they are configured or the way we interpret and implement them must be flexible and changeable.


A multicultural society does require some metavalues, such as those that are embedded in the American Constitution, which has allowed for growth and adaptation. One of these metavalues is what we call ‘pluralism’. Pluralism essentially means that, whatever I believe at a moment in time, it is valuable – not just tolerable – to me that there are people around me whose beliefs are different.


It’s confusing, but we have a right to be confused. Perhaps even a need. The trick is to enjoy it: to savor complexity and resist the easy answers; to let diversity flower into creativity. Politicians again and again try to wean people from the effort to understand complexity. They know, for instance, that war is the great simplification that makes it possible to silence dissonant opinions and to decide once and for all that guns are more important than butter instead of seeking a more complex balance.

(Ibid., p.313)

There are several recorded talks by MCB referenced in the course materials, including an appearance she made on the podcast On Being in 2015. Some of the central themes she keeps coming back to are around the interconnectedness of life, the importance of communication and feedback, and how lifelong learning literally begins at birth:

In a sense, human beings remain childlike. They’re open to new learning and even very deep learning that changes your personality, really. Right through the life cycle, human beings remain playful — and play is a very important part of learning — and experimental. Most other species, they figure out how to be a rabbit or a chicken or an owl or a fish, and that’s what they do for the rest of their life; so learning is us.

(On Being, 2015)

I also appreciate what MCB says about reconceptualising rights and responsibilities in her talk Living Cybersystemically in the Anthropocene which is a talk from 2015 that is provided in the module materials (The Open University, 2021). We need to move away from just talking about individual human rights: “species have rights,” she says, “Communities have rights. Tribes have rights” (Ibid.). We need to understand ourselves in relation to one another, not just individually.

MCB often uses examples from biology and anthropology to make her points, and ends one commentary by stating “there is no such thing as independence in biology” (Bateson, 2016, p.677). It’s something that, as an American, she says it is difficult to unlearn. Elsewhere (Bateson, 1991) she calls independence an “illusion”.

It’s interesting that, to me, MCB brings a feminist approach to systems thinking while simply referencing it as “living cybersystematically”. “I am not just for number one (myself),” she says, “I have obligations and I depend on others” (Bateson, 2016). MCB applies this to the climate emergency, stating that, “We have not learned how to co-operate or really even discuss the issue at a global level” (ibid., p.675)

I certainly learned a lot from reading Composing a Life. In fact, I would say that it opened my eyes to the very different lives that women have compared to men, and made me much more open to embracing a feminist approach to life.


  • Bateson, M.C. (2001) Composing a life. 1st Grove Press ed. New York: Grove Press : Distributed by Publishers Group West.
  • Bateson, M.C. (2004). Willing to learn: Passages of personal discovery. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.
  • Bateson, M.C. (2016). The myths of independence and competition. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 33(5), pp.674-677.
  • Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2020). Systems Thinkers. London: Springer London. Available at:
  • On Being (2015). Mary Catherine Bateson — Living as an improvisational art. 1st October. Available at: (Accessed: 23 February 2024).
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘3.3.3 Bateson: willingness to learn’, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 23 February 2024).

Image: CC BY-SA Festival della Scienza

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *