You Need the Humility to Learn

As a graduate student at Stanford, I was a teaching assistant for a year-long course required of freshmen: Cultures, Ideas, and Values. I have no idea whether this particular course still exists, but I still have vivid memories of it.

The freshmen in the course read classic texts from multiple cultures, including things like Homer’s Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita, the sayings of Confucius and the New Testament, Plato’s Republic and the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu, Karl Marx and Adam Smith. There were lectures that contextualized the readings, explained some of the trickier points, and suggested issues to think about. Each student was also assigned to a small seminar group, in which graduate students (like me) led discussions on the readings. Students wrote brief weekly reaction papers to help them keep up wth the readings, as well as longer essays to allow them to go into greater depth. They got detailed feedback on the longer essays, and also had the option of meeting with the instructors one-on-one in office hours.

Sounds like a great course, doesn’t it? It was! It was a spectacular opportunity to learn. And the freshmen at Stanford utterly despised the course.

There was plenty of discussion about why the course didn’t seem to be working. The discussion was almost always among faculty who were not directly involved with the course, and the problems they diagnosed almost always had to do with failures in the structure or teaching of the course. In my opinion, they all missed the mark. Any course can be taught and structured better. If you think your course is already perfect, you are obviously a horrible teacher. But as the description above suggests, the basic structure of this course was almost idiot-proof. How bad could a course like the one I described be?

So if the fundamental problem was not the course structure and it was not the teaching, what was it?

The students who get into schools like Stanford have generally been the best at everything their whole lives. They are valedictorians and salutatorians. They are concert violinists at age 16 or olympic class athletes. They are articulate, at least in a glib way. And they have learned to seem “cool” while doing it. (I am told that the official motto of Balliol College at Oxford is “effortless superiority,” which sums up the attitude nicely.) We take these students and we throw them all together their freshman year. They are excited to be in this great university, but also very intimidated. Imagine one of these students in his first discussion session:

  • Instructor: “So are you persuaded by Plato’s argument that the wisest and most educated should rule society?”
  • Freshman: “No, because truth is relative, so who is to say who is wise?”
  • Instructor: “Ah, but if you say that truth is relative, is the truth of that statement itself relative?”
  • Freshman: “Uhhh…”
  • Instructor: “And you students here are being trained to be the future lawyers, doctors, senators, scientists, and experts who will run society. How are you different from Plato’s philosopher kings and queens?”

The student is experiencing what the people of Athens experienced at the hands of Socrates. And, of course, they put Socrates to death for it.

It only gets worse when the student gets his or her first graded essay back. Not all students can get an A on any one assignment, or an A would cease to mean anything. (And I teach in a philosophy department, one of the few disciplines that is holding the line against grade inflation.) Many freshmen end up getting an A- or even (God forbid!) a B+ for the first time in their lives. In the words of one student, “But…I always get an A!” Believe me, having a grading curve is not some cruel perfectionism on the part of professors. Studies show that students learn the best when held to high standards. In addition, the standards were not ridiculously high. I still remember the very first essay I graded as a teaching assistant: it included the phrase, “One of the basic tenements of Confucianism is….” Another student asked me hopefully, “When you circle a word and write ‘word choice’ beside it, do you mean good word choice?” And I will never forget the sign in the student-run coffee house on campus that read, “In lieu of our best efforts, the espresso machine is broken.” (Yes, I am sure that was not clever irony.)

There were basically two ways students reacted to discovering their own falibility. On the one hand, some rose to the challenge: “Ouch. Well, time for the humility required for genuine learning.” On the other hand, some lied to themselves to protect their own self-image: “Hmph. I am a great student; my teachers are the problem.” Unfortunately, many students went for the second option. Based upon their particular preferences, they would pick a rationalization. “This course has a liberal bias” or “this course has a conservative bias.” “Too much non-Western philosophy” or “why not more non-Western philosophy?” “The teachers don’t give us a chance to think for ourselves” or “the teachers don’t give us any guidance for writing our essays.” “Too much literature” or “too much philosophy” or “too much history” or too little of any of those things.

I’m not picking on Stanford or Stanford students. I got a great education there, working with scholars from the departments of Philosophy, Religious Studies, and East Asian Languages, which are among the best in the world. And I did have the honor of teaching many wonderful students at Stanford, students genuinely excited about learning. Furthermore, the details above are based on my experience of more than twenty years ago, so things may be quite different at Stanford now. But there is a timeless lesson here that is not limited to that course, not limited to Stanford or any other elite institution, and not even limited to learning in school. (Sorry for burying my lead in the final paragraph.) The moral is that whoever you are and wherever you are in your career, there will come times when you realize that your understanding is not as deep as you realized, or that you need to develop a new skill set. Confucius said, “To learn and to continually work at it — is this not a joy?” He was right about the potential for learning to be an endless source of joy, but that joy is only possible when you also have the honesty and humility needed to learn. If you find yourself saying, “I am a great salesperson; my clients are the problem,” or “I am a great employee; my boss is the problem,” or “I am a great attorney, the judge is the problem” — you may be in need of the humility to learn.

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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