Friends School of Baltimore Private School Blog

Intellectual Humility: A Surprising Superpower

Posted by Matt Micciche, Head of School, Friends School of Baltimore on Feb 19, 2019 2:29:19 PM

Who among us doesn’t enjoy having our long-held beliefs confirmed?  Especially if the source of such affirmation is a well-respected and impartial institution. You can imagine, then, the pleasure I felt in coming across a recent white paper produced by Stanford University, titled, “A Fit Over Rankings; Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.”  

What’s your superpower? Beyond loosening up nervous or otherwise hesitant participants during professional and social gatherings this popular ice-breaker encourages us to reimagine our seemingly unremarkable traits, elevating them from the mundane to the extraordinary. One such undervalued quality that might give x-ray vision or the ability to fly a run for their money is intellectual humility; a virtue that Mark Leary, a social and personality psychologist at Duke University describes to Vox science reporter Brian Resnick in his recent article as “the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.”

Resnick profiles Leary and several other bold social psychologists who are working to shift the field of psychology and the scientific community as a whole toward a culture in which it is safe to admit past mistakes. He explains that the obstacles to intellectual humility are both cognitive (we are, for the most part, profoundly unaware of the “blind spots” in our knowledge) and cultural (the professional and academic worlds do not reward – and often actually punish – the habit of admitting uncertainty or error).  He points out that intellectual humility is both a product of and a catalyst for other qualities, such as curiosity, critical thinking, reflection and information literacy. (These are also some of the skills and habits of mind referenced in Friends School’s Teaching and Learning Paradigm.)

By regularly asking our students to reflect on their knowledge, its sources, and its limitations, Friends School educators actively work to create an environment in which intellectual humility can thrive and mistakes are seen as an important step in the learning process. We’re helped along in this effort by the foundational Quaker tenet that “the truth is continually revealed.”  Embedded in this axiom is the acknowledgement that what we once believed to be true is often “revealed” to be imprecise, incomplete, or just plain wrong. While such a realization can be deeply unsettling, it is also an undeniable reality. (It is worth remembering that the heliocentric universe, for example, was an accepted scientific fact for much of human history.)

In an era when “the death of truth” is frequently proclaimed, the importance of teaching children that all of us, adults and children alike, are frequently wrong is essential. Ironically, as Resnick shows, it may well be the case that a more widespread embrace of the fallibility of human knowledge will ultimately be the key to ensuring that rigorous scientific thinking remains central to our decision-making process individually and collectively.

Though it seems unlikely that Marvel Comics will be introducing a “Captain Intellectual Humility” anytime soon, this surprising superpower may just be the hero we’ve been waiting for.

# # #

Want Greatness? Create A Safe Zone For Admitting Mistakes -- Forbes (Jan. 23, 2019)

How to Help Your Kids Thrive -- Thrive Global (Feb. 15, 2019)

How ‘Intellectual Humility’ Can Make You a Better Person -- The Cut (Feb. 3, 2017)


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Topics: intellectual humility, growth mindset, admitting mistakes, leadership development

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