We can’t teach humility in our schools, but really need to.

This is my first post talking about some of the ideas in my new book Learning in a Time of Abundance. The book is the result of almost 20 years of writing, talking and thinking about how the Internet changes what it means for us to learn. The book is not so much about how we learn IN schools, but rather what we need to learn as citizens in order to deal with the world we’ve found ourselves in. It just so happens that much of our training (overt and hidden) about what it means to learn was formed by our schools – so they come up a fair amount.

Our schools are about getting right answers. If you get the answer right you’re smart. People with good grades are smart people, and they get good grades by giving the answer that the teacher wants them to. I understand that this seems like an obvious claim… but I think it’s important. We are rewarded, in schools, for being obedient and giving the answer the teacher wants us to.


This is fine when what we’re looking for is the name of a given molecule or the capital city of Japan (though it used to be Kyoto – I was today years old when i finally noticed it’s an anagram of Tokyo). There are a whole other set of things, human things, that are not like that. Many (most?) of the things we need to do to get through life don’t have a single answer. When we teach those in schools, even in more creative courses like music or art, we often teach them as if there were right answers. We reward students for getting it right.

The hidden curriculum, then, is that when someone asks you a question, there is a right answer. That’s what we learn ‘learning’ is. Being smart is about figuring out what that right answer is, and then giving it. That’s what we learn in school. We never learn to say things like ‘yeah, i’m not really sure I’m in a position to answer that question’ or ‘yeah, i can kind of see both sides of that, and can see it working either way’.

This shows up in my classes all the time. I will challenge my students with a topic that is split in the literature, we’ll read both sides, and, at some point, a student will say “which one is right?” I typically shrug my shoulders and say something like “it depends on how you look at it.” Then they feel like they were tricked. We always end up in some conversation about how it doesn’t make sense to ‘learn it’ if it’s not ‘right’.

(There’s a whole argument here about teaching people facts as background knowledge when they’re novices and teaching them deeper concepts when they’re experts that I will discuss in a later post, but suffice it to say that most of the time, we are taught most things as if they’re true. )

The purpose of humility

We are not new in needing humility in the way we look at hard conversations. Philosophers have been suggesting for millennia that we need to be humble. Socrates, after being called the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle, responded that he knew nothing… thus confirming that he was the wisest man in Athens.

That humility, giving the space that there might be other perspectives that aren’t yours, that you don’t understand, that you don’t know about, gives room to the people around you. It also is, I think, the only response to what Rittel and Webber called wicked problems. Some problems are so huge, so complex, so intertwined, that you can only ever work on part of the problem. In some cases, you can only make something better by making something else worse. You can decide to approach those problems with a wrecking ball, ignoring your impact on the whole ecosystem, or you can approach it with humility.

It matters in every day life just as much. We tend to panic when we are confronted with uncertainty. When someone else’s beliefs don’t match ours we can see that as a threat. If there’s only one right answer, and they think they have the right answer, then that must mean that they think our answer is wrong. Leaving room for uncertainty, for ambiguity, for context, can help us understand our issues and each other better.

Weirdly, we teach humility in PhD programs. All the way leading up to a PhD, we are taught that things are right/wrong, and, if we ever make it to the top of the formal learning process, people are like “yeah, well, it depends”.

That means that basically all of us, on basically every topic, have been taught that things are right or they’re wrong. Maybe worse, we’ve been taught that someone else has decided what that right answer is… and our job is to just follow along with whatever it is.

This is the central concept of how marketing works – make people believe that something is true.

We have too many things are us, too much information coming in, too many complex problems to do something about to believe in right answers.

Humility, then, is a key literacy in confronting abundance.

(note: I do believe there are wrong answers… just not necessarily always a single one that is right)

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

8 thoughts on “We can’t teach humility in our schools, but really need to.”

  1. Interestingly, the idea of uncertainty is also intertwined with trust. To build trust, you have to have authenticity, empathy, and logic (https://www.ted.com/podcasts/fixable/uber-and-how-to-fix-things-when-trust-is-broken-transcript). Morriss and Frei go into a lot more detail, and that podcast is well worth the 30 minutes. But one component is that your logic takes a hit in times of uncertainty. You can combat that by qualifying your plan with phases like “at this point, I’m thinking…” and “my initial reaction is…” Dialing down the certainty gives you more credibility in uncertain times. Having the humility to do that gives you an authenticity and helps build trust.

  2. The multidirectional qualities of time suggest every assumed single ‘right or wrong’ answer is more (un)certain than not including our understandings of humility. What that term meant at 30 is far different than today.

    Looking forward to reading your book!

  3. Your book sounds so interesting! I too have been thinking a lot about humility especially in relation to leadership, both in education and out of it. So often new leaders ( or poor leaders) seem to think they should know everything and shouldn’t admit it if they don’t. That’s not a great recipe for success. I like your thought about using it as a key approach to abundance of thoughts and ideas.

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