Strive for Intellectual Humility

Strive for Intellectual Humility

Our hypothetical student is representative of many students we encounter: He has not done the readings or has trouble understanding what he’s read; he has limited knowledge but is resistant to increasing it; he clings to the same worldview he came into the course with; and he is overly confident about his position. Scholars have referred to these patterns as a form of willful ignorance (Baker, 1990; Dei, Karumanchery & Karumanchery- Luik, 2004; Schick, 2000). In our experience, students who have trouble understanding what they read seldom: re-read, read more slowly, use a dictionary to look up new words, or ask their professors to explain difficult passages. Standardized testing and the punishment and reward system of grades are major contributors to these habits, as they have created a school culture that rewards conformity and single, correct answers over intellectual curiosity and risk-taking. Yet critical social justice education demands a different kind of engagement than most of us have been prepared for in our previous schooling.

Another challenge to intellectual humility is that many of us see social science content as soft science and therefore value-laden and subjective. On the other hand, the natural sciences such as astronomy are seen as hard


science and therefore value-neutral and objective. Because of the presumed neutrality of the natural sciences, we are unlikely to argue with astronomy findings until we have some mastery in the field—knowing that we might not fully understand the concepts and theories presented. We are more likely to focus on gaining a basic understanding and not on whether we agree or disagree. If we perform poorly on tests, we might feel frustrated with the professor or material as being too hard, but still recognize our own lack of knowledge as the primary cause of the poor performance.

Yet in the study of the social sciences—and particularly when the topic is social inequality—the behavior of our imaginary astronomy student is not unusual. In fact, it can be common for students to argue with professors prior to achieving mastery of the concepts and theories presented. Furthermore, students frequently cite anecdotal evidence to support their arguments and dismiss course content prior to engaging with the research. And unfortunately, students who “disagree with” social justice content are often taken seriously by classmates —even seen as a kind of hero for speaking up to the professor. Seeing the study of social inequality as a form of subjective scholarship, these students put it on par with their own personal opinions and dismiss it out of hand.

In academia (including the social and natural sciences), in order for an argument to be considered legitimate (e.g., such as how many planets there are, and whether racism exists), it must stand up to scrutiny by others who are specialists in the field. This scrutiny is called peer review. Peer review is the process by which theories and the research they are based on are examined by other scholars in the field who question, refine, deepen, challenge, and complicate the arguments, expanding the collective knowledge base of the field. Just as the astronomy professor’s teachings are more than his personal opinions, social justice professors’ teachings are more than their personal opinions. Both instructors are presenting concepts that have undergone peer review. The overall evidence, theories, arguments, and analysis presented in class are rooted in the peer review process.

STOP: When we say that peer review makes an argument legitimate, remember that we mean this for academic contexts (such as a college or university course you might be taking). There are other forms of evidence that are legitimate. However, academic arguments such as those we present in this book must stand up to peer review.


Most of us have seldom previously encountered—much less understood enough to disagree with—the scholars we initially read, especially in introductory critical social justice courses. Although some of us may bring important firsthand experiences to the issues (such as being a member of a particular minoritized group under study), we too can benefit from grappling with any theoretical framework before debating it. For the beginner, grappling with the concepts is the first step. To facilitate doing so, practice the following:

Read the assigned material carefully. Look up vocabulary words and terminology that are new to you (e.g., if there are terms used in this chapter that you do not know, start with the book’s glossary). Accept that you may need to read all or part of the material more than once. Consider reading passages out loud or taking notes of key points as you read. Practice using new terms in class. If there are terms or concepts you are still unsure about, raise them in class. It is likely that you are not alone in your confusion. Assume that your instructors appreciate questions that demonstrate engagement and curiosity, rather than apathy and silence that make it difficult to assess student needs. Strive to see the connections to ideas and concepts already studied. This will help with your recall, critical thinking, and ability to see the big picture. Focus on understanding rather than agreement. Consider whether “I disagree” may actually mean “I don’t understand,” and if so, work on understanding. Remember, understanding a concept does not require that you agree with it. Practice posing questions. Because most students have been socialized to care more about getting the answers right and less about comprehension, we may fear that asking questions will reveal that we don’t know the answers. Thus, we may make bold statements that lack intellectual humility. These statements could be more usefully framed as questions. Be patient and willing to grapple with new and difficult ideas. “Grappling with” ideas means to receive, reflect upon, practice articulating, and seek deeper understanding; grappling is not debate or rejection. The goal is to move us beyond the mere sharing of opinions and toward more informed engagement.

One place where grappling often falls short is in small-group work. For most instructors, the goal of small-group work is much more than students


simply “sharing their ideas or opinions on X.” Rather, it’s an opportunity for students to spend time critically thinking through difficult ideas with the support of others in order to deepen understanding and share insights. In addition to the specific prompts and questions that the instructor has given, all of the following could be taken up in small-group work:

Asking clarifying questions of each other Making connections to other readings Identifying key concepts and defining terms Generating examples that illustrate the concepts under study Identifying patterns Developing questions Questioning relationships between concepts Discussing the implications for your own life and work Practicing articulating the ideas introduced in the course using your own words, in order to clarify and increase your comfort discussing them with others Identifying and discussing challenging passages

Yet instructors often encounter small groups who are merely reinforcing their previous opinions, have moved on to engage in off-topic social banter, or are sitting in silence, checking email or texting because they are “finished” discussing the topic at hand. From an academic perspective, a small group should never be “done” talking about any topic they are given. Scholars have spent their careers developing these concepts, and a limited number of class minutes is not adequate to finish working through and understanding them. If you find yourself at a standstill, work through the bulleted list above, or ask your instructor for some prompts and check in about how you are doing in your comprehension.

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