Academic humility

Another conversation with Mark Johnson yesterday got me thinking seriously about what the role of humility and of confidence is in the academic community. If there is a literature on this, I don’t know it, so my remarks here are appropriately tentative. But the issue is of surprising importance to personal development, so perhaps worth the risk of some speculation.

Back when I was doing my PhD (gulp) years ago, I suppose I must have recognised, probably only just in time, the importance of this for a PhD candidate to turn into a fully-fledged member of the academic community. To cut a long story short, I would now say that it should be a requirement of any PhD viva for any candidate who is in line to pass to be thrown a few questions outside of their area of research. I fear I don’t recall which such questions were asked of me, but perhaps they could have been about more mainstream psychology, for example.

There seems to me to be a range of acceptable answers to questions outside one’s area of expertise. The simplest is something like “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” PhD candidates are not meant to be masters of general knowledge. While this answer would be problematic if the question is to do with the candidate’s central thesis, when off topic it is not only allowed, but just about necessary. Or it could be, “I haven’t read enough of the literature to know the answer there, so I’d rather not speculate.” Or, at a pinch, “Well, I don’t know this literature well, but I’d guess that …”. Certainly not just an unqualified unfounded opinion in a PhD viva.

This isn’t really the flavour of the month, though, is it? The world seems to be fuller than ever of people willing to tout their own conjectures, or worse, prejudices, as facts. People in all walks of life seem to be called upon to be confident in their own views, so it is hard to find good role models for appropriate academic or intellectual humility. There was Socrates, of course, but that was rather a long time ago for people with little sense of history.

Why should this matter? One thing pointed out by Mark was the interests of future students of this potential member of the academic community. To help students reach their own full intellectual maturity, it is rarely a good thing to lay down “the truth” and expect students to lap it up. Do this, perhaps, for younger school pupils, if they still need a basic set of working views to start with, and provided that the same line is taken by all other teachers in the establishment. But after that, teachers, lecturers, mentors, coaches, need to provide good and timely questions – another thing Socrates excelled at.

Perhaps undergraduates do need to absorb a corpus of existing established belief on a topic, but they also need a clear awareness of the boundaries of existing knowledge. Focusing on what one does know is less likely to help than focusing on what people dispute.

This takes me back so strongly to the work of William G Perry, Robert Kegan, and Darren Cambridge. There is a hard challenge here when one comes to the stage of PhD study – the academic apprenticeship. On the one hand, as Kegan points out, a graduate needs to come to their own conclusions, not just accept one single authority in a discipline. As Darren Cambridge points out, many subjects have “essentially contestable” concepts there to be studied, and portfolio practice allows the learners to argue for their position; to marshal evidence for it; to be a co-creator of meaning in their part of the academic world. This is the place, perhaps, for confidence, because if one is not confident of one’s own intellectual position, who else will take it seriously? Who will count it as a material contribution to the academic world? As I recall it, this corresponds at least roughly to Kegan’s “4th Order” thinking.

Kegan’s 5th (and final) Order is rather more elusive. I can’t summarise such a subtle concept here quickly – go read “In Over Our Heads” etc. But what Kegan calls the 5th Order to me is to do with being aware of all the orders; being able to adjust one’s response to fit the person with whom one is conversing. This is what teachers should be aiming at, it seems to me. They should be well-developed, intellectually and ethically, in themselves, but also aware of the needs of those who are not so well-developed, and able to speak to their condition. And this feels like a deeper and even more wholesome kind of humility than the humility of knowing the boundaries of one’s specialist area of study. It includes the position that all one’s specialist knowledge is useless and inappropriate in some contexts. It includes the idea that to question every tradition in a post-modernist way is not the right thing to do for people who have not yet even established their own way.

This can be confusing, which I suppose is why it requires unusual maturity. To those at earlier stages, one may need mainly to be a knowledgeable and reliable authority. To those at later stages, one needs first to leave room for advanced learners to develop their own ideas and positions, and then to model comfort with being uncertain, to prepare the way for the learner to be achieve the same true mastery.

I turn back to T.S. Eliot, East Coker:

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

3 thoughts on “Academic humility

  1. What a wonderful post. I agree that it’s the areas of uncertainty that make us (well me anyway!) want to learn and explore; experts who cut that off through the pressure to Be Right suffocate curiosity.

  2. Insightful.

    I’m reminded of Colin Wilson’s observation of what he calls the “Right Man”, the person (in his examples, male, hence “Man”) who *always* has to be right and has an opinion on everything. And you know what they say about the similarity of an “opinion” and the rear part of the human anatomy – everyone has one.

    I love the freedom and lightness that comes from saying “I don’t know”. From this starting point we can move towards something.

    Robert Fripp says that “In order to do something, first we have to learn how to do nothing”.

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