Instant certainty, intolerant zealotry and elitist egotism are the enemy of learning and leadership, faith and freedom, civility and compassionate humanity. Finding the antidote to this axis of arrogance is paramount and will enable us, individually and collectively, to overcome what may well be the ultimate impediment to man’s search for meaning and society’s push for progress.
I may have found the answer in an unlikely place — a college campus. But not a typical college campus. Most colleges and universities across America are actually ripe with instant certainty, intolerant zealotry and elitist egotism. Many accuse higher education of authoring and perpetuating the kind of axis of arrogance that we now see manifest in media, business, politics and in our personal lives.
I recently interviewed Mark Roosevelt, president of Saint John’s College — a very different kind of college. This small liberal arts college, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, may be the best laboratory for not only wiping out the axis of arrogance but advancing critical thinking, lifelong learning and more meaningful dialogue.
I asked Mark what was the highest and most important outcome he had for students graduating from St. John’s. Without hesitation he replied, “Humility!” I admit I was a bit surprised. Could humility really be the ultimate takeaway from four years of study? After listening to Mark, I was reminded that learning can’t take place without humility. Neither can understanding, compromise or compassion.
St. John’s has no professors professing what they know. They have tutors and learners. There are no lectures. The tutors ask questions that lead learners on a journey — not a journey to predetermined destinations, but to wherever the possibilities and principles take them.
Humility is not only the antidote to the axis of arrogance but the key to continuous learning and the path to true wisdom.
Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, understands the part humility plays in perpetual learning. President Nelson was recently described by someone who has worked with him for many years as both the smartest and the most humble person they had ever met. Another of his colleagues commented that they had never heard President Nelson ever say that “he knew something.”
We have all had the experience of a colleague or friend telling us something we already knew, saw or read. We are often so eager to show how smart, knowledgeable or connected we are that we jump in with our take on the topic. President Nelson always lets the person finish. He resists the natural urge to interrupt and say, "I know that." He then humbly extends the conversation with what I think is the real art — the art of the secondary question. And his learning, and teaching, continue.
Humility really is a different approach in an age where instant certainty is always on display in the media, on social platforms and in public debate. Dr. David Bobb authored a most instructive book titled, “Humility — An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue.” It is worth a read and serves as a vital reminder to all of us. He highlights the essential humility of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Abigail Adams and Frederick Douglass. They each recognized that the axis of arrogance will deaden both the curiosity of the mind and, more importantly, the compassion of conscience.
Mark really got my attention during our interview when he said, “We should all just take a moment to pause and shake our own zealotry.” Zealotry is believing so strongly in something that you are completely intolerant of different beliefs or opinions.
Mark continued, “We should shake our belief that we've figured it out, because we haven't, none of us have figured out why we're on this earth, what our purpose is, and it's all very humbling to contemplate those questions. And maybe the next time we approach a controversial conversation, we’ll be just a little more willing to listen and hear out what another person is saying. Especially when they may be saying something we don't like.”
Mark went on to apply this kind of humility to the distinct difference between civility and civil dialogue. He said, “Civility just means being polite, and I think that's important. But civil dialogue is something beyond that. It's the ability to maintain courtesy and respect across our differences, and that is certainly what we seem to have lost in our larger body politic.”
The egotistical elite who believe they have all the answers for all the people rarely have the interests of others at heart. Those who promise everything, as long as they are given power, rarely have the humility to develop real solutions to society's most pressing problems. Sadly, humble servant leaders in government or business have become a rare and endangered species. A leader who is humble enough to listen and learn while recognizing they don’t have all the answers, is actually the leader worth following.
Reporters and journalists, pundits and politicians and yes, especially opinion editors, would be wise to give humility some space as they race to their microphones, cameras and keyboards to declare with myopic certainty and zeal what they know is the most important take on the topic of the day.12 comments on this story
If the axis of arrogance wins out in the end, we will come to public tyranny of the state and private tyranny of the soul. Humility can overcome such tyranny and lead to the ultimate in freedom and human flourishing.
Of George Washington Dr. Bobb stated, “Washington was not born humble any more than he was born great.” Humility is a lifelong journey that leads to never-ending learning, authentic confidence and true greatness. The path to humility must be pursued daily in our conversations, communities, congregations and personal contemplations.