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Intellectual Humility

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Intellectual Humility

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct."

- J.S. Mill

What is intellectual humility?

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One of the best ways to get a sense for intellectual humility is to think about the contexts that demand it. For example, if you are congratulated for getting an ‘A’ on a test, the appropriate response is not to mention how smart you are and how you did not have to study very much. A humble person is not disposed to be concerned with how special he or she is. Very few, if any, intellectual tasks require you to think about being unique to accomplish them.

Still, it is important to recognize that the intellectually humble person is not necessarily deficient in confidence. In fact, it might even be said that those who are intellectually humble have a great deal of confidence. This is one reason why accolades and dominance do not matter as much—these things are not essential to achieve intellectual goals (e.g. knowledge). The intellectually humble person recognizes that hard work is typically the most pressing intellectual demand. The humble person also understands that the best intellectual work often comes in conjunction with the thoughts of others. Recognizing the necessity of hard work and the limits of one’s own intellectual perspective are fundamental components to being intellectually humble.

Why is it necessary?

What does an intellectually arrogant person have to learn? Not much. Conversely, the further a person is from arrogance the better situated he or she is for learning. A benefit of intellectual humility is the recognition that one's own perspective is always going to be limited. This recognition leaves a student well positioned to learn as much as possible from peers and to strive to capture as much of the expertise of the professoriate as possible. Finally, those who are intellectually humble do not presume to know which information is valuable and what is not. Students often struggle with general education classes, seeing no obvious purpose they serve. It is very difficult to work hard at learning when you think the subject matter is pointless. By internalizing the importance of intellectual humility students can at least acknowledge that it is possible they do not yet understand why they need to engage particular subjects. Then, the student can use that perspective to maintain motivation for learning.