On Academic Humility

Septem artes liberales from "Hortus delic...
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James Garland has an insightful article, “The Value of Humility in Academe (No Kidding)” at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In part, Garland comments:

The seminal moment [in encouraging my own academic hubris] came . . . when, having stumbled out of an impossibly difficult physics exam, I noticed a wall of portraits of former Princeton physics majors who had won Nobel Prizes. Nothing like a course in quantum mechanics to bring one down to earth.

Until that point, I had never really appreciated what a liberal education is all about. An essayist in The Chronicle has put it this way: “A liberal-arts education . . . is about the recognition, ultimately, of how little one really knows, or can know. A liberal-arts education, most of all, fights unmerited pride by asking students to recognize the smallness of their ambitions in the context of human history . . . .”

Humility isn’t a very fashionable topic in academe. Sure, we all know that pride goeth before a fall, but that means not gloating over trouncing the other team, and not lording it over a colleague because you got the promotion and she didn’t. Besides, preaching humility is the sort of moralizing done by, well, preachers, and not by college professors.

But here the preachers have got it right, and we should listen. True enough, we academics need to empower our students, inspire them to greater heights, engage their passions, and so forth, and obviously we shouldn’t go around gratuitously popping their balloons.

However, unless our students temper their dreams with realism, they will never achieve them. Humility is an important educational goal because it is the bedrock of a liberal education. It is the quality that keeps us from overvaluing our own opinions and discounting the opinions of those who know more than we do. . . .

Next time we sound off on a topic we know little about, or cloak ourselves in moral certainty, or voice unsupported assertions, or jump to unstudied conclusions, or stake out doctrinaire positions on complex issues, we should know that we’re setting a bad example for our students.

Even if we have tenure—especially if we have tenure—we need always to keep in mind that there is no easy path up the mountain. And, like that allegedly famous guy who kept pushing the big rock only to have it roll back again, we should know the mountain’s summit will always be out of reach.

For the full article, see here.

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