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In Praise of Humility

Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but “recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small,” according to a recent study, reported in Duke Today, by Aliston Jones. The researchers believe that humility helps leaders with all kinds of perspectives make better decisions.

Please get details from the article, which can serve as an antidote to our present clashes in the culture wars. You don’t hear a lot of humility from the talking heads on cable TV.

Classroom discussions on controversial subjects are often fraught with raw emotion, especially when participants believe they must play—and defend—a particular role. Consequently we often avoid certain topics rather than deal with them, like a divided family at Thanksgiving, trying to get through the day without an argument, by focusing on the Dallas Cowboys. Garrison Keillor used to say that sometimes it’s best not to talk, as we only dig ourselves deeper into a hole from which it gets harder to escape.

We could take a cue from Socrates, who taught humbly by asking questions rather than providing answers. On the other hand, if you’ve ever tried the Socratic method of instruction, you can get into trouble quickly by asking questions of students. And things didn’t turn out so well for Socrates unless his goal (at age 70) was glory through martyrdom, as some scholars have argued.

Nevertheless we could use more humility. And the trait may be related to empathy—the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. Joyce Carol Oates, in her recent novel, A Book of American Martyrs, attempts to achieve empathy on the volatile subject of abortion. The tragic story involves two families on opposite sides, with flawed characters, misunderstandings, deeply held religion, and a semblance of reconciliation. The book will probably not change your mind on the issue, but you’ll likely come away from reading the story with a heavy dose of empathy.