That’s my conclusion – but I am surrounded with counterforces that make it hard to remember.
- Students being taught that there are “right answers” and that they will succeed by answering questions “correctly.” Consequently, they are asking me to tell them what those right answers are – even in graduate school. I tell my students that much of my feedback will be in the form of questions such as “have you thought about this?” and that I will typically give “right-wrong” feedback only with respect to the most minuscule grammatical and mechanical matters – but they sometimes find this less than satisfying.
- Political campaigns asserting the rightness of their views. While I have my opinions and values, I tire of statements that such-and-such a view (even one I share) is absolutely correct or incorrect – yet that seems to be what the voter wants. Politicians speak of the other side as if it were devoid of any intelligence. If one can take a historical view, it is possible to see that what was controversial or “wrong” at one point in history is accepted a few decades later. Yet it is hard to remember this in the midst of the political debate.
- Academic journals (and more generally, professional trajectories) favoring work that purports to “prove” some inconsequential assertion, mostly through statistical analysis. Statistics seem to have some magical value that clarifies complex and controversial issues. And scholars get great joy, seemingly, out of pointing out how others are wrong (again, basing their evaluation in some version of truth). I find this terribly sad.
- Rankings of everything and “best practices.” I see a lot of college rankings and hear students and faculty discussing them as if they were somehow irrefutable fact. Yet what is best for one person or context just doesn’t make sense for another. And “best practices” abound – yet can one really say that X is a best practice for all situations?
Culture-crossing has been one of my greatest teachers. 50 years and 100 countries after my first experience living abroad, I am constantly learning when engaging in a new culture. Brazilians have, in just the last three years, thrown asunder what I thought I knew about the world, and I am thankful – Muito obrigado, amig@s!
And so I have come to think that humility is one of the greatest assets of a human being and a scholar-practitioner. Even in areas where I am a so-called “expert,” I find new learning a gift. I am often called into situations as a consultant with supposed wisdom and insight to share; yet I think that my greatest insight is often that each situation is unique and that discovery of the best answer requires stepping back and thinking afresh. Yes, I can say that taking such-and-such an action helped another organization, but that may not be the best step now and here.
It is hard to be open and humble. As noted above, we are often rewarded for being “right.” It can hurt to admit we were wrong. It can be scary to go into a new situation open to new understandings that may contradict the way we’ve understood the world before. As a teacher, I may be profoundly challenged to not rely on accepted truths, to push back when students seek “the answer,” to assess student work based on their humble exploration and deep digging rather than clear and assertive reasoning.
Yet the older I get, the more convinced I am that humility is key.