Humility and higher education


A couple of weeks ago, our pastor preached a sermon on Philippians 2, the main idea of which is humility. The link gives you the text for the whole chapter (read it!) but verses 3 and 4 give a strong command:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

As a Christian whose vocation is to higher education, I find these twin commands to be deeply countercultural, not only to the culture at large but especially to the culture of higher ed. After all, I work in the “ivory tower” — a parallel universe to the rest of the world where the rules of common sense and human behavior seem to take on Bizarro-world-like properties at times.

What would real humility look like, as practiced by a professor actively working in higher education? Taking the verses above at face value, it would seem pretty simple: treat people with a sense of their worth, and value their worth more than you value your own, and look to their interests in addition to your own. This in turn requires that professors think about two big questions.

Question 1: What is it about my students and colleagues that makes them so significant? Christianity offers an answer in terms of the inherent worth of each individual as a creation of God. For me, that’s enough. But I can also get a sense of how true that worth is when I think about my kids. My 3-year old, as smart as she is, can’t read; can’t do any kind of math besides counting; can’t take care of herself in anything but the most rudimentary ways. Every so often, when I teach or interact with students, it’ll hit me — how amazing it is that these people can do what they do! They may not be very good at math or writing, some of them, but they can at least do it, and somehow they made it from infancy to being functioning adults capable of holding their own in a college classroom. If that were my kid, I’d be proud beyond words, and rightly so. I suspect that this kind of revelation is a lot closer to the truth about my students than the ever-present disappointment with inabilities to do whatever it is they are supposed to be doing in my classes.

Question 2: What are my students’ and colleagues’ interests? I think there are two ways to interpret the word “interests”. One is “needs”, and the other is the more traditional idea of “interests” as things which people find valuable. But for now, let me focus on “needs”.

What are the needs of my students? Well, every student has different needs, but there are some common threads. Students generally need discipline in their thinking. They need help in managing their time, priorities, and life choices. They need an expansion of what they already know and enjoy. They need to become engaged with, and learn to enjoy, things that are wholly outside of themselves. They need to be equipped not only to learn things in the present but to be able to learn and expand themselves throughout life.

It’s easier to think about what I needed when I was an undergrad. I needed discipline; I was pretty smart but not at all focused, and I wasted a lot of time and energy in college screwing around with all kinds of things that added nothing to my life in the long term (or the short term). I also needed a sense of belonging — a need to “find my tribe” and fit in somewhere, which is something that never happened to me growing up and happened only belatedly in college thanks to our Honors Program. I needed a sense of how all the stuff I was learning fit together and what it was all about; I was really good at playing the education game to get good grades, but when I went off to graduate school I was out to sea about the big picture of my discipline. Finally, if I was going to have any kind of faith or spiritual element to my life at all, I needed it to be something real and vibrant, not the legalistic socializing that passed for faith when I was a kid. I didn’t start to get that until I was a senior in college, but that’s a whole different story.

I don’t think I was so different from college students now, even though it’s a whole generation later and I teach in a much different institution than the one I attended. But in fact, our college has this mission statement that outlines five main organizing principles for the life of the college: faith, respect, responsibility, honesty, and lifelong pursuit of learning. I think it’s pretty striking that these are precisely the five things that most college students, including myself at the time, lack in the greatest quantities.

So humility, from the college professor’s standpoint, consists in understanding what students’ needs are; accepting that students have them and not being disappointed or upset when those needs show up in the education process; letting the students have entry into “my world” of higher ed; and then simply trying to give them, to the extent that I can, what they need.

There are also some things that humility does not look like. It is not the same as simply being soft, or lowering one’s standards, or giving students endless breaks when completing their assignments. I’ve been ripped on evaluations before for being “arrogant” when all I was really doing was holding high standards, assessing students accordingly, and frankly pointing out to them where they needed to improve. We tend to think of humble people as undemanding or “nice”. In most contexts that may well be the case. But in education, teachers and professors have to learn to strike the fine balance between uncompromising, tough-minded, disciplined thinking — and teaching — on the one hand, and the notion of counting others more significant than yourself on the other. You have to be tough/disciplined AND caring/nurturing at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive, although too many education schools think that they are and force students to choose between them. I’ve written about this before here — ironically, only to be taken to task by students who thought I was being arrogant and uncaring in saying so.

I want to take it on as a goal for next year — heck, for right now — to practice this kind of tough-minded humility on a daily basis. I hope that it will bring some changes for the better for everyone.

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