Scholar’s Compass: Academics and Humility

winter berries photo“Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away. . . . Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.” – Proverbs 4:5-6


In academics emphasis is frequently placed more on how much one knows, rather than on the process of learning. An environment geared towards test-taking and preeminent reputations can easily take us far from humility, especially if a rigid certainty is elevated above inquiry.

Trappist monk Thomas Keating teaches that humility is “what God most looks for in us,” calling it “an attitude of honesty with God, oneself, and all reality” and “the forgetfulness of self” that’s “the hardest job on earth,” one that paradoxically “doesn’t come about by trying” (The Human Condition 21; Open Mind 164, 67).

How then? Keating defines humility as an unconventional, constructive attitude toward humiliation. When one’s dignity or self-respect is crushed, one prayerfully accepts whatever is true in the humiliation and refuses what isn’t true—this process of letting go of the ego and its “emotional programs for happiness” (The Human Condition 30) softens the soul in humility, Keating says. He isn’t, however, endorsing an acceptance of abuse but is encouraging a wise use of life’s difficulties that come our way.

In this context, Keating references twelfth-century Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who saw humiliation as the path to humility (Invitation to Love, 112). Keating observes, “Sometimes a sense of failure is a great means to true humility,” adding, “I realize this is not the language of success” (The Human Condition, 21).

The “language of success” plagues academics. Our lives are ordered by earning superior grades, achieving advanced degrees, contributing to students’ graduations, attending academic congresses, and in every way making progress. These words share the Latin gradus for “step,” reminding us how strictly measurement-oriented our careers can sometimes be, so much so that aggressiveness (a “stepping toward”) can arise when someone seems to get in the way of our next rung.

If a resume mindset and the final product become dominant, the joy of our disciplines’ exploring and sharing can also diminish. High standards and hard work are crucial to the learning process, but so is the freedom to not get it right on occasion and then try again.

Sometimes I think we’re trying so hard to be right that we miss the journey of learning—more process than arrival. I still love looking up words I don’t know and also those I (think I) do know. I delve into points of grammar a lot, too, since I may remember a fact wrongly, or opinion may have changed; usually some new interesting point emerges.

I saw humility in action when I was a freshman in college and never forgot it. My much-respected German professor was also my favorite English professor. He possessed gravitas, had mastered German, had memorized whole passages of Emerson, and was gentle with floundering newbies. One day a student asked him a sinewy question he couldn’t answer. He stopped his usual pacing, reflection stilling his features. “I don’t know,” he admitted, smiling, “but I’ll find out.”


How can we invite more serious playfulness into our careers?

If we only find what we’re looking for in research and in life, what have we learned?


God of Love,

You can help us who teach learn how to be teachable.

Please teach us.

You can help us turn the dross of humiliation into the gold of humility.

Please show us how.

Lead us in seeking Wisdom so that we can know you and be truly happy.

Further Reading

Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, Paulist Press, 1999; Invitation to Love, Bloomsbury, 2011; and Open Mind, Open Heart, St. Benedict’s Monastery, 2006.

Image courtesy of stux at Pixabay:

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Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Dr. Carmen Acevedo Butcher has co-authored textbooks on the history of the English language, publishes books on the Christian women mystics and other medieval writers, blogs for The Well, and lectures on linguistics, lectio divina, and the process of writing. She teaches at Shorter University, and you can find her online at

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