On intellectual humility

So, back when I was first chosen to be a Park Faculty Scholar I knew that something I really wanted to try and instill in this group of incredibly bright and motivated students was intellectual humility– a trait that, I believe, does not exactly come naturally to most of the bright and motivated.  There’s actually a pretty good social science of the subject, but most of my ideas come from learning it the hard way.  It’s my contention that if you are going to be a successful academic, you better have a heavy dose of intellectual humility.  Most of the research that you submit will be rejected the first time.  Even when it’s not rejected, smart people take it apart and find every last flaw.  You have to use that to make it better; not just complain that people don’t understand your brilliance.  Furthermore, unless you are truly exceptional you are surrounded by a lot of other really smart people– some/many of which will be smarter than you.  And even if they are not necessarily smarter, you are going to be surrounded by people who know a lot more than you about subjects very close to your area of expertise.  So, to thrive, you need to be ready to be wrong– a lot– and to learn from that.  I was decidedly lacking in intellectual humility in my college years and I hope I can make at least a modest difference for the Park class of 2022 (and, actually, a small difference for all my students), which started by assigning them Success and Luck to read before they even came here.

Anyway, I recently came across this cool site from the Templeton Foundation that actually summarizes the social science research on Intellectual Humility.  Cool!  Here’s the official research-oriented report.  Here’s the brief summary from the website:

In a nutshell, intellectual humility helps us overcome responses to evidence that are self-centered or that outstrip the strength of that evidence. This mindset encourages us to seek out and evaluate ideas and information in such a way that we are less influenced by our own motives and more oriented toward discovery of the truth. When we discuss important, controversial issues with others, our initial responses to their arguments tend to be shaped by our preferences, identities, and prior opinions. Intellectual humility buffers against those responses so that we can become more “truth-oriented.” It helps us overcome our self-centered inclinations in discussion and learning, making us more likely to follow the evidence where it leads and positioning us to better understand the truth.

I actually like to address this through all my classes by starting out every single class with Ezra Klein’s “How Politics makes us stupid” and repeatedly refer back to it.  I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but finally got around to it due to inspiration from another Vox piece, where David Roberts gives advice for wannabe explainer journalists:

Then there’s fairness, which is what I think most people (of good faith) are grasping at when they talk about “bias.” One thing you notice when you learn more about a subject is that it’s more complicated than you thought it was — for any value of “it.” There’s always more to it than you thought, no matter how much you thought before you started looking.

Though social media might lead you to believe otherwise, there are ambiguities and good-faith arguments to be found in and around any subject. Even on matters where you think the correct answer is obvious, you will understand the answer, and your own thinking, much more clearly if you understand the best argument for the other side.

Fairness does not mean refraining from conclusions. (What are you being paid for, if not to look into things and figure them out?) But it does mean doing your best to get in the headspace of a reasonable opponent, trying to articulate the best argument against your conclusions.

And it means acknowledging doubt and uncertainty. Which brings us to humility.

Humility is perhaps the most difficult thing of all in the social media age, which endlessly rewards the sharp, clear take, the one that might go viral.

I’ve written plenty of those myself — hundreds! — and obviously don’t see anything wrong with it. The key, in journalism as in any truth-seeking pursuit, is to try your best to keep all your beliefs and conclusions at arm’s length, at least somewhat provisional. Don’t get your identity mixed up with your beliefs or you’ll end up defending them come what may.

Even if you get above the 90 percent knowledge threshold on a subject, there’s plenty of climbing to do, and each increment gets more steep. We are all of us in this business dancing at the edge of what we know, so it pays to be open to correction or revising your conclusions.

That is, of course, easier said than done. I’ve changed my thinking on plenty of things over the years, but not always with grace. Listening and being willing to revise your beliefs is rarely rewarding in the short-term, especially give the tribal incentives of social media. But it is worth it in the long run. You will be more interesting and more useful, for longer, if you cling to your curiosity and humility.

Good stuff!  I know I am far from perfect on the matter.  But I’m a firm believer that intellectual humility is a mindset that can and should be cultivated.  And, honestly, it’s all the more important for the academically successful.  And, the readers of this blog.

College is expensive

So, I had a college-level meeting scheduled this week where we were going to learn about “postvention.”  Well, that’s a new one for me, so I looked up the university administrator who was going to educate us on this.  Nothing against any of these particular people– and the only one them on this page I have worked with is very competent.  But this is why college is so expensive.  This is a lot of very-well compensated (it’s public record) administrators who don’t really have anything to do with the university’s core missions of teaching, research, and extension.  Listen to the job description of the Vice Chancellor leading this division:

Dr. Mullen provides leadership and vision for over 50 departments and administrative units in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. Responsibilities include oversight of a $120 million budget, 570 faculty, professional and administrative staff, and approximately 2,500 student employees. In this role, Dr. Mullen is responsible for curricular and co-curricular programming and support services that contribute to the success of all 35,000 students at NC State.

I’m not at all arguing that we should eliminate student affairs.  But that’s a lot of people and a lot of money.  University administration has grown way faster than other elements of the university and that’s a major driver of costs (nice summary here).

Anyway, you look at any one of these administrators and it probably seems pretty easy to justify their role.  And again, as far as I know, everybody at the page I linked is a good person doing a good job.  But, overall– college is too expensive and this is undoubtedly part of the problem.

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