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.



Discussing Ethics With Children and Teenagers

Should ethics be taught in schools? Many people shudder at the thought. It would be like teaching religion in public schools, some respond. It would be like teaching not just how to make a rational decision and think critically, but how to live one’s life.


And I am sure that position is valid in many cases. Some people think teaching is about telling students what is right and true—how to interpret historical events or understand a character in a novel. They would teach science or social studies by having students memorize facts from a textbook. So, to teach ethics in schools would mean having students memorize rules and make their thinking and behavior consistent with what is prescribed by the teacher or school system. So, maybe the first question needs to be, what does it mean to educate a person?


If education means something like providing the background knowledge and ability to analyze information, and think clearly and critically. If it means learning how to raise questions and cooperate with others, so children can live a meaningful life and contribute positively to their community, then how can ethics not be part of education?


In fact, how can ethics not be taught? Ethics means learning how to inquire into and figure out how to act morally, understand right versus wrong and what is good or proper. It has to do with figuring out principles to guide your actions. To provide any guideline on social behavior is thus teaching ethics. Don’t schools begin to teach ethics on the very first day of school, when children are given rules for classroom behavior? And do you want students to graduate without having examined how and by what principles they make or could make ethical choices? Or how to evaluate the implications and consequences of those choices? Considering the political climate in this country, can we afford to graduate students with a distinct lack of such understanding?


And students, particularly in secondary school, yearn to ask ethical or moral questions. They want answers. They want to know how to act, how to live, what is right.


So, to teach ethics, teach students to question using real, ethical questions. Such questions are essential to any discipline. In English classes, you could study the consequences of ethical choices made by characters in literature. In Science you could not only study atomic theory but the ethical dimensions of using atomic energy. Imagine asking the following in a class: Should you always try to tell the truth?

Imagine one student responds: “There is no truth.” Or asks, “How do you know what’s a truth or what’s a lie?”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is saying something you know to not be true.”

A third student: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale?”


Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They enliven a classroom and intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.


What are the consequences, if any, of lying?

One student says: “None— unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Another: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

A third: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”


So you suffer when you lie? The students said it. When you lie, you can create a fictional self that is weak and lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community? Conversation or speech is not simply self-expression. When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being. It’s a relationship. Lying, or any unethical behavior, has consequences. It can cause suffering and distort thinking.


So, why lie? What are your intentions? Your intention, if you lie, might be to help others or to advance yourself at the cost of others. Should the intention behind your actions be important in evaluating your choices?


What do you do when you act ethically? Which principles or ethical systems do you apply? Study this deeply and honestly and question your understanding of any topic or situation that calls for action. Study the ethical systems used by different people, systems like J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Greek or Confucian virtue ethics, Kant’s idea of universalizabilityBuddha’s 8-Fold Path, or the Golden Rule. Students can work to discern if the principles or values they use to make ethical decisions actually make their lives, and the lives of others, better or worse. What role does compassion play in acting ethically?


And besides applying an intellectual and personal moral analysis, you need training in social-emotional awareness so you can actually do what you intend and think is right.


*The photo: a part of my yard after rain ended, hopefully, the drought.