The Discredited Value of Humility in Education

Education, news on education, education news, educational institutes, UK news, UK, British, British news, European news

© Frannyanne

April 12, 2019 11:42 EDT

As we await the reign of artificial intelligence, is it too late to refine the idea we have of purely human intelligence? The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

According to the British Psychology Society, various studies prove that “intellectual humility correlates with superior general knowledge.” These findings may surprise or even disappoint quite a few people, such as the experts routinely invited by the media to explain complex problems, journalists on American news stations (Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, to cite only those three), mainstream politicians and a fair number of bloggers.

Here is today’s 3D definition: 


The acceptance of the idea that contrary to the mountains of evidence each of us has amassed highlighting our own genius and relative infallibility, there may be a few people in this world even more knowledgeable than we are and from whom we have something to learn 

Contextual note

To the above list of those who might find these findings surprising, we should possibly add some of the people professionally involved in education, though not necessarily teachers themselves. One of the researchers cited in the article sums up the logic behind the findings: “[S]imply put, learning requires the humility to realise one has something to learn.”

In most people’s minds, education is about learning. This means — if the researcher cited is correct — that the practice of humility should be at the core of education. But our educational institutions have rarely encouraged humility. Humiliation, yes, in grading, in testing, in other forms of assessment and sometimes even in counseling. But humility, no. The model imposed ever since the beginning of the industrial age is that of the teacher as the person who has already learned the subject matter and need waste no more time learning. The students are there to absorb some of the teacher’s knowledge during their hours in the classroom. The teacher is paid to teach, not to learn. The learners are there to learn as passively as possible.

Humble teachers do more than teach. They learn from their teaching and especially from their students, which they can do in a variety of ways. But educational institutions rarely encourage that process. They do their utmost to create the image of the teacher as the “master,” the person who knows everything you need to know about the subject. In reality, anyone who truly understands, investigates and teaches any subject knows that the one thing they are not is masters of the subject, even if other people paste that label on their forehead or attribute it to them as their job title. They may possess more “mastery” than some or even many of their colleagues, but the true masters tend to be those who understand two essential things: how little they know and the best avenues to continue exploring, extending and deepening their knowledge.

The author of the article, Christian Jarrett, mentions one finding that he sees as paradoxical in relation to the overall conclusion. One study “  students … found that those higher in intellectual humility achieved poorer grades.” In guise of an explanation, he suggests: “Perhaps the latter result arose because the higher-achieving students used their objectively higher grades to judge their intellectual ability as higher, not having had the chance yet in life to confront their intellectual fallibility.”

But there may be a simpler explanation, one that reflects the design of our educational institutions. Students who exemplify true intellectual humility typically understand that there is more in the subject than the content their teachers are presenting, on which they will be tested and graded. If a curious and humble student delves deeper and ventures beyond the content of the lectures and lessons, because they deviate from their teachers’ discourse, they may end up being less well primed to perform well on the tests than the students who simply focus on what they know they will tested on. This is especially true if the means of assessment is a multiple choice test.

Historical note

In recent decades, education in the West has fallen increasingly into the mold of a commercial and industrial activity, which emphasizes performance rather than learning. One of the obvious trends has been the adoption of the multiple-choice test as the norm for assessment, increasingly replacing the traditional essay. As The Learning Scientists blog explains: “Multiple-choice tests are very popular in education for a variety of reasons — they are easy to grade, offer greater objectivity, and can allow more content to be covered on a single test.” The reasoning cited reflects a clearly industrial approach to learning, with a focus on efficiency, comfort, manageable content in the form of discrete facts (rather than an expectation of understanding and communicative expression) and productivity measured in purely quantitative terms.

It also reflects a historical trend in behavior. The article stresses one important insight: “[H]igher scorers in intellectual humility were less likely to claim knowledge they didn’t have.” Logically speaking, this implies that those with lower scores in intellectual humility were more likely to claim knowledge they didn’t have. In the competitive society that students are preparing to enter to earn their living, there is a real advantage to claiming more knowledge than one has, sometimes known as the art of bluffing.

Concerning humility, the converse is true. The meek may one day “inherit the earth,” as Jesus foretold in the Bible, but before then they will have a tougher time getting a job. US culture, in particular, teaches youngsters that to succeed, they must learn to be assertive rather than self-effacing (meek). Even today’s Christian teachers, wishing to promote the wisdom of the Bible and somewhat embarrassed by the radicalism of the Sermon on the Mount, have found a way to harmonize its lesson of humility with the assertive foundation of the American way of life. They simply redefine meekness as something akin to inner strength, which provides the level of confidence that will make the humble assertive.

Education in the West has reached a point of existential crisis, raising a long series of questions. Does the pursuit of learning even make sense in a world where industrial norms of efficient action tend to stifle traditional human behavioral norms? Many people are left wondering what the value of “general knowledge” might be in the age of Google and Wikipedia. Who has time or the motivation to develop understanding when assessment in the pursuit of a coveted diploma is focused on facts and the memorization of standard formulations? And the biggest question is one that every student may end up asking themselves: What kind of a bang will I get from the bucks I’ve spent on education when I get my degree and start testing my ability to be assertive enough to begin paying back my student loan?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member