Mastery, humility, and the vaiven inbetween

I was just watching a fundraising live stream for our college, and one student was interviewing another. What has been your favorite class so far? Why?

The student answered by describing the absolute breadth and “foreignness” of the topic of the class. I’m anonymizing for the sake of this post, but imagine, say, a class on the the histories, traditions, and social meanings of music in Africa. The student, after explaining how incomprehensibly huge the topic was and how excited ze was to begin to understand such complexity, followed up by saying, “I did a long research paper on Kenya and now I know everything about it.”

The vaivén between “I know nothing” and “I know it all” seems both normal and yet incredibly dangerous. After all, taking one single course and writing one “long” research paper only begins to scratch the surface of any complex subject. I begin to wonder, listening to ze claim mastery, how do we, as professors and mentors, help students claim a tentative mastery? How do we help ground them in the humility that (I would argue) is essential to the learning (and teaching) process?

My intellectual humility finds ground in scholars who model it with grace.

Richard Feynman, for example, says “one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here . . . I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.” Feynman’s focus on why we might want to tout our mastery and believe in it deeply are persuasive to me–fear of the unknown is probably matched by fear of feeling and seeming ignorant.

And bell hooks, in a recent interview with George Yancy in the New York Times, says, “Growing up, when my mom used to tell me, “You’re really smart, but you’re not better than anyone else,” I used to think, “Why does she go on about that?” And, of course, now I see why. It was to keep me grounded and to keep me respecting the different ways of knowing and the knowledges of other people, and not thinking “Oh, I am so smart,” which I think can happen to many well-known intellectuals.” The flip side of humility, or its hand-holding partner, is an abiding respect for those who know differently than we do. When you sit in humility and respect, you remember your own knowing limits.



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