Humility, Clarity, and Critical Thinking

How do our actions differ when we feel secure in ourselves versus when we don’t? Or when we are unsure what to do, but have to do something? Or when we are very sure of what we think, but someone disagrees with us? If we want to think clearly, a little humility can go a long way.


When I first started teaching at the Lehman Alternative Community School in 1985, I hadn’t taught an academic class for ten years. I had taken a break in my teaching career. Walking into a large public building, with the sounds of hundreds of people in the halls, and working 10 or more hours a day to create and teach five or more lesson plans—all was new and stressful.


And since it had been ten years since I last taught, it was a struggle to remember the techniques I had used in earlier years or what I had studied in college or graduate school. I felt I had to appear to be an interesting person, and to provide something engaging and worthwhile for students. Only later did I realize the job was to help them find their own lives interesting and worthwhile.


It is often when we are unsure that we speak the loudest. I was unsure of so much, so I tried to sound sure about whatever I was teaching. It was difficult to admit what or how much I didn’t know. It was difficult to feel the school was a home where my true self could live.


But that changed, thanks to the students, the structure of the school, gaining experience, many hours of study—and practicing mindfulness, both by myself and with students. As I grew more comfortable with myself, students grew more comfortable with me, and it was easier to admit what I didn’t know. The classroom became a second home. I realized it was more honest and real to model asking questions instead of dictating answers, so students could discover reasonable answers on their own.


We all think our view of reality, of politics, of certain people, is correct. This is partly due to our biology. Even when we doubt ourselves, we can believe our self-doubt.


When we see a red rose, the redness arises from the way our brains interpret a certain wavelength of light. Red is the way our consciousness recognizes and interprets the light reflected off the rose. A colorblind person, or another species of animal, won’t perceive the color at all. For a red rose to appear in the world, we need at least three things: the thing seen, enough light, and a brain capable of learning about and providing color. But we don’t perceive red as a gift of our own mind, or as a way we make sense of the world. We see it as an inherent quality of the rose itself.


A similar thing happens in social situations. We think someone is a “good” person, or beautiful or ugly and think those qualities are permanent and totally inherent in the person, not supplied by us. The other person is just, forever, good, bad or beautiful. Or we think our solution to a problem is the only good solution, and think the goodness we perceive is objectively true. So, we never understand our own role in the world; never understand the world or ourselves.


We might even think, when someone disagrees with us, they are being stupid or  ill informed, and they should adopt our viewpoint over their own. And they might be ill informed, or unreasonable, but so are we if we think we can simply dictate to someone else what to think. Or if we imagine any viewpoint is objectively the only truth, and we forget that a viewpoint is just that: one way (hopefully based on reliable and verifiable evidence) to view a particular situation from the context of that particular person’s brain structure and life experience.


It might seem a contradiction, but feeling some humility about our own ways of understanding the world might reveal answers when none are apparent. It might help us look before we conclude—to notice what we might otherwise ignore or hear what we might otherwise never listen to, and thus save us from situations that seem impossible.


Humility is the quality of being humble. To be humble has very different connotations. For some people, it has negative connotations, as it can mean to be brought down low, even humiliated. Or as Wikipedia points out, in some religions, humility can mean submission, even self-abasement, to a deity. It can mean one is economically poor. Or it can have positive connotations, and mean being simple, modest and unassuming, even virtuous, in contrast with being narcissistic, vain or greedy.


The root of humility is humus, earth. The connotations of the word might arise from how we think of earth. Is it dirty, lowly, as contrasted with heavenly? Or does it mean grounded, or focused on the place out of which all life emerges?


In the martial arts, to move forward with power, we push down and back against the earth or floor. We curl our toes to grip the earth and be grounded. There is no place else we want to go, nothing else we want to do. We are thus at home in the situation and ourselves.


When we feel at home wherever we are, with whomever we are with, and with whatever role we play, we are more present and open. We don’t need to try to be what we aren’t but think we are supposed to be.


And when we realize how much our own minds color the world, we are more humble and real. We are able to perceive other people and our world with more clarity, more compassion, and more depth. Thus, we are more able to help others perceive and think about the world with more clarity, compassion and depth.


This is a powerful way to be and act, a powerful way to teach and relate. Humility and critical thinking should be two core elements of a modern education. This might help us save ourselves from the political and economic situation we are in. In my “humble” viewpoint, acting with some humility towards our own viewpoints, and compassion for the lives and needs of others, is certainly better than the narcissism, greed and lack of self-knowledge that we too often face today.



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  1. Susan Crooks

    Hi Ira,
    I am a 7th grade ELA teacher and having been teaching over 20 years. In a few weeks, I will be holding my 5th workshop on the importance of the practice of critical thinking and also the practice of mindfulness. It seems the two together create a syngery to move humanity forward compassion, empathy, fairmindedness, autonomy, humility . . . I have presented this numerous and and working to discover more research and improve on my work. I do believe that our schools could see great improvement if our children and our teachers were taught these practices and used them:-) I would love to hear your ideas on this topic.
    My workshop:
    What if we, as global citizens, blanketed the world with the intellectual virtues of fairmindedness, intellectual empathy, intellectual perseverance, intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, and confidence in reason? Already there are those who have begun the weaving, but considering the magnitude of the blanket needed, we need many hands. We also need the tools, the materials, and the directions. In this search, we can reflect on the writings of great thinkers such as Socrates, Thomas Paine, and John Henry Newman, but for practicality, it would be useful to have a universally-accepted set of instructions to follow, a set of standards to apply and also a way to keep the weaver present in the practice. With many hands weaving together the Paul-Elder Model of Critical Thinking with mindfulness, we may move humanity towards global citizenship.

    During this workshop, we will provide you with the tools, the materials, and the directions to help you develop a daily practice of mindfulness and also of critical thinking. We will be working with the Paul-Elder Model of Critical Thinking and also the mindfulness techniques of open-monitoring and focused-attention. Join us in weaving a blanket of intellectual virtues that will warm the hearts and minds of humanity.

    With gratitude and love,

    • Thank you, Susan. I was lucky to teach in a school that fostered and integrated into the curriculum and school day the values of compassion, democracy, and critical thinking and allowed teachers the freedom to be creative. The school let me use mindfulness in my classes since the mid 1980s. Since you’re doing research, why don’t you take a look at my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching? I propose a basic model of critical thinking using mindful questioning, empathic imagination, etc. I am familiar with the work of the Elders. I was also very influenced by neuroscience, Buddhist teachings, my philosophy classes, and creativity theorists. I write blogs, essays and stories in order to put compassion and mindfulness out there as being necessary for clear thinking and sustaining our world. Good luck to you. Let me know what you think of the book.

  2. Melanie Griffin

    Hello! Thanks for this lovely and wise blog post. I’m looking forward to reading more of your pieces, the categories look great! It seems you and I have some similar experience and values. I am currently thinking/writing about how to help us free our minds from trump, and what spiritual lessons we might learn from our experience – that’s how I came across this. Be well!

    • Thank you, Melanie. I’m so glad you found the post helpful. I hope we do find ways to free our minds, hearts, and nation from trump.

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