Intellectual Humility–Four Vignettes

I’m a big believer in the value of scholarly and intellectual humility. Having been a classics student, I especially appreciate the exposition of this virtue in Plato’s Apology. Socrates, in his defense before the Athenians, describes how the Oracle had declared him to be the wisest one in the land. He surely thought this must be some sort of mistake, as he lacked any particular wisdom, so he went around entering into dialogues with politicians, poets, and others, questioning them so as to understand the depths of their wisdom. And eventually he realized that the Oracle was true, if only in a certain and limited respect. For while the people he questioned were not wise, they certainly thought themselves so, whereas Socrates himself had no illusion as to his own wisdom. So knowing that he did not know was a type of wisdom in itself, which Socrates concluded he did have in abundance compared to the self-important men of the marketplace.

Of course, I realize that claiming a certain intellectual humility is possibly ironic evidence against actually possessing such a trait, but I only mean to lay current claim to this virtue in comparison with times in my life when I have clearly lacked it. To illustrate, I will share with you four vignettes:

1. The first time in my life that I had any sort of a self-perception of being in some way “smart” was when I was in sixth grade. I had gotten straight As throughout elementary school, but I assumed that that was just par for the course and was essentially meaningless. But when I made the transition to junior high, the school had a small budget and program for giftedness, and about 25 students were selected to participate in this program, including me. This was the first tangible indication I had that anyone thought of me as being in some way brighter than average.

These kids were all put into a separate class and taught accelerated classes. The main impact of that was that we took algebra in 8th grade rather than as freshmen in high school like everyone else. (These days, the timetable for learning algebra has advanced from where it stood back then.) Also, we got to go to special week-long camps up in Wisconsin, just our class and our teachers, where we would study various things. That was about it for the tangible differences between the “gifted” class and the regular classes. But as modest as it was, I sort of let it all go to my head.

I became the type of kid who knew all the answers to everything. I don’t remember, but I probably had my arm raised to respond to questions pretty much constantly. And I was a major teacher’s pet. My 7th grade science teacher took me to other schools in the district so that I could talk to them about astronomy, and my 8th grade English teacher loved my writing and was tremendously supportive and encouraging.

To this day I perceive 7th grade as pretty much the height of my intellectual life. I was smarter and knew more then than I do now. But it couldn’t last; in high school, that pompousness was pretty quickly socialized out of me. Being smart in high school I soon found out was a major offense against the social order. I even intentionally tanked my grades my junior year (which is proof positive that I wasn’t so really very smart at all). To this day, say in GD, if I know the answer to a question I am very reticent to answer it, for fear that others will perceive me as “showing off” in some fashion. It was a hard lesson, but I had become a little prick and it was a lesson I needed to learn.

2. You know how our youth are all sick of Sunday School, because they’ve heard everything a hundred times before? I felt exactly that way as a young man pre-mission. I was convinced that I knew more than our seminary teacher, a local housewife, and it may have even been true for all I know. But I paid a price for attending all of those catechism-churning lessons. When I went on my mission, I thought I was fully prepared and that I knew everything one needed to know to be a missionary. I knew everything about the Gospel, right? I must have, because I was never, ever challenged at Church, so that was the natural conclusion for a young person to draw.

But then I go on a mission, and I remember trying to teach a couple, among my first investigators. And just how little I actually knew quickly came crashing down around my shoulders. They weren’t asking silly, loaded questions like in the lesson manuals; they were asking real, actual questions from a position of skepticism. And nothing in my Church life to that point had prepared me for such an encounter. And I came face to face with the depths of my own ignorance. That couple actually felt sorry for me, I was so clearly out of my depth, and that empathy actually played a small role in their eventual decision to be baptized.

3. Rattled by the difficulties I had early in my mission, I rolled up my sleeves and began to learn. And I learned a lot on my mission, and by the end I pretty much had a pat answer for everything. This was a self-defense mechanism for me to survive constant religious conversations over the course of my mission; having those pat answers in my back pocket gave me a comfort level and allowed me to actually engage in the work. But then I went to college, and college did for me what it was supposed to do. I began to see that pat answers often don’t work, that there is a lot of gray and we don’t fully understand everything. And then going to law school kicked everything up a notch. If you’ve seen The Paper Chase, you have some sense of what it is like to face a professor in your first year of law school and being on the receiving end of his Socratic dialogue. That pretty much strips certainty and easy answers from your thought processes.

4. Being a lawyer in the Church, there’s kind of a dichotomy. At Church away from actual practice I get a lot of respect for my profession. I have a reputation in my ward and stake for being smart and knowledgeable. So how do I stay humble? Well, in the actual work context I’m well aware of how much there is to know and how limited my knowlege is. And the people I work with keep me humble. Of the five partners in my small Chicago office, I don’t think there’s any question but that I’m the least intelligent. They are all brillaint; one sort of has to be to practice the type of law we do. But I am in my own estimation the stupidest guy in my office. So when I interact with people in other contexts I do it with the knowledge of where I fit in my peer group at work, and knowing how smart your colleagues are is truly humbling.

These and other life experiences have taught me to have a healthy respect for the depths of my own ignorance, and so to be slow to think that I’ve got something all figured out.

In the Chuch context, I never cease to be amazed at people who stumble upon some negative tidbit about the Church on the internet, and then immediately conclude the Church is full of it and chuck the whole thing. Where is the intellectual curiousity? Have they looked for and read the bibliography of materials on that issue that have been published by prior authors on the subject? Have they considered or even reached out to the senior scholars who know all about that issue but yet maintain their faith? So many people claim to “know” the Church is true over the pulpit, but I find their testimonies in too many cases to be fragile and glass-like, to crack over the least little thing. A little more awareness of how very little we actually know and how much we need to learn on a subject would go a long way towards keeping our people from losing their faith needlessly.


  1. Peter LLC says:

    So knowing that he did not know was a type of wisdom in itself, which Socrates concluded he did have in abundance compared to the self-important men of the marketplace.

    Have you seen this series at the NYT?

  2. Thomas Parkin says:

    I read the Apology in my parents bath tub when I was about 20. (College drop out!) Almost every right step I’ve taken intellectually and spiritually has some roots in that reading – and the example of my father. Whenever I think I know something through … that’s when I end up with my foot in it.

    Back in the old days of the internet, long before the days of the blogs, they used to say, “first rule of the internet: there is always someone who knows more than you do.”

    I’m generally not impressed by intelligence alone. I’m smart enough to know that without some kind of direction towards humility and truth, what intelligence mostly serves is to wind up the complexity of one’s delusions and self-delusions. ~

  3. Kevin, I’ve experienced much of what you lined out so beautifully. It’s almost like those steps (or vignettes) are rites of passage. In my regular life, I’m considered a pretty smart cookie; here online, I’m average, at best. It’s humbling, and when someone I know says something about my supposed smarts, I know better- because I know Kevin Barney, and Kristine Haglund, and Brad Kramer, and Nate Oman, and… and so it goes. This is a unilaterally good thing- and a mark of maturity.

    Now I’m going to email you with a question about Plato… :)

  4. I especially appreciate your final paragraph about the fragility of immature testimony. One wonders how we might help improve that condition.

    I learned an interesting lesson from an EQP in my college days. About once a quarter (before the pattern of monthly “presidency” lessons) he’d pass out index cards to the quorum (about 90 members) and invite them to write down any questions they had, and he’d try and answer them. His answers were often, though not always, quite good, and he generated some valuable discussion.

    I took a similar approach in my institute classes I taught in my stake a few years ago, including the injunction to my students that there is nothing wrong with asking questions as long as the questions are sincere and as long as we’re willing to be careful about seeking the answers (that is, to research carefully and patiently, instead of running to the easiest or loudest answer out there).

    It is interesting that the intellectual humilty that make keep us from making too many bold and declarative statements may save us in the end.

  5. The more I lurk around this site, the more I confirm my suspicions about my ignorance. Then again, Kristine Haglund once said I was “spot on” with one of my comments to a BCC post. So, I have that going for me. Which is nice.

  6. A little more awareness of how very little we actually know and how much we need to learn on a subject would go a long way towards keeping our people from losing their faith needlessly.

    Well said. Great post, Kevin.

  7. The older I get the more I realize how much I don’t know. Time is the great leveler.

  8. I went through a couple of similar experiences, but it took me a long time to figure out that people who worked harder in school would get better grades than me. I don’t think I fully got it until college and getting married to my smarter-than-me wife. I distinctly remember a senior project for one of my high school classes where I figured I could work about one fourth the hours that my friends were working, and get a B, which I did. Most of them put in way more time, and most got A grades. It took me a few years and getting knocked around a bit to figure out what was wrong with that picture.

    I also had the opportunity to be on both the high school and my college debate teams. It was a mixed experience, as everyone else looked at us as the “smart kids”, but more importantly, it taught me to be able to look critically at both sides of an issue, as we had to be able to argue our cases for either side of a topic at the beginning of every debate as determined by a coin flip. That made me a lot less certain of many of my opinions. I could always see the argument for the other side, and it taught me more about critical thinking than anything else I’ve ever done.

  9. It takes an exceptionally smart person to spend a whole lot of time and effort explaining how and why they know so little. To those that don’t know any better they look pretty dumb. I wonder if to those who do know better the still look pretty dumb. How is one to separate the sheep from the goats?

  10. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve experienced these “wake-up” calls three times in my life:

    1. My mission humbled me in nearly the same way; thought I had all the answers and quickly came to realize I didn’t. Moreover, because I wasn’t good at recognizing or teaching by the Spirit I was not only less knowledgeable than I thought I would be, but a far worse teacher than I ever imagined.

    2. Law school. Same experience as well. Breezed through undergraduate, then went to law school and I was just another average student. In many ways, below average. I hadn’t gone to a private high school and then on to an Ivy or Duke or Stanford. I was just a regular Joe who went to a public high school and then BYU. That was pretty brutal.

    3. Reading Rough Stone Rolling. After law school I moved to the southeast and was assigned to home teach an active black member. After a few visits he told me he needed me to find a real answer to the Priesthood problem. I plunged headfirst into the research and didn’t like what I found. The only well-researched info I could find was in Rough Stone Rolling and the info helped this brother, but it left me unsatisfied with a number of pat answers I had been comfortable with for too long. I then spent a lot of time researching these issues online, read Know Man Knows My History, subscribed to Sunstone, Dialogue, etc.

    It was just like my previous two encounters with the very real limits to my own knowledge: each left me shocked with how little I knew, but I emerged grateful for the experience, stronger in the faith and with a renewed dedication to continue learning (with humility).

  11. The last paragraph hit home, as this has happened to a few of our close friends. I don’t get it.

    I hesitate to generalize with this, and I don’t wish to compartmentalize people. That said, while my sample size is relatively small, I’ve noticed a few things in common with these close friends who jumped ship pretty quickly after reading something that offended their faith.

    1. They thought they had a testimony before their departure.
    2. Despite #1, none were actively living certain “gospel basics” (daily prayer and scripture study, temple attendance, and in some cases, church attendance) when they came across their “faith-shaking” material.
    3. None had read church history before, and for the most part assumed that what was taught in Sunday School was all there was to know (and in their later hindsight, that it was all that the church wanted them to know, thus showing its institutional dishonesty).
    4. They felt that after consulting You-Tube, a few anti-Mormon websites, and maybe an anti-Mormon book or two, they had learned all that their was to know about something, and looked at themselves as “enlightened” or “thinking” people. They felt that if anyone would read the same things, they would feel the same way.
    5. Despite my best efforts to have some sort of friendly dialogue to discuss the issues that bothered them and let them know that I was very much familiar with whatever issue they had come across, few were interested, and they told me that they had made up their mind to renounce the faith of their youth. No further research. And of those that did want to discuss, none came at it from an “honest questioner” middle ground – they were mostly trying to prove their new-found enlightenment.

    I’ve since thought that one of the key ingredients that was common in all of these cases was a lack of critical thinking (which may sound odd, especially to them, who thought that is what they were doing). While I don’t believe that higher education is necessary for obtaining it, or that those who do have higher education necessarily apply it to everything all the time (or even gained it in the first place), none of these individuals had much, if any, formal training in critical thinking and analysis. Is some basic training in this, along with a basic understanding of epistemology, necessary for intellectual humility?

  12. Well said, Kevin. I was going to write pretty much the exact same comment as Susan M, so I’ll leave it at that. We all grow up and (hopefully) get to know our own limitations a lot better.

  13. “Is some basic training in this, along with a basic understanding of epistemology, necessary for intellectual humility?”


  14. Here’s another way to look at those whose testimonies seem so fragile. Elder Burton spoke to us as missionaries and suggested that when our testimony is small, its border is also small — that is, what we know is small, and our knowledge of what we don’t know is also small.

    As our testimony grows (assuming it does), its border will also grow, and we will increasing be aware of more things we do not know.

    If one has a living, vibrant, growing testimony, this process may be gradual, so that the testimony and its border grow at similar rates, and there is strength to manage the border.

    Drawing on that example, it seems that if the testimony is weak, and one gets a flash look outside the borders, then it could have a negative impact. I suppose another remedy is to encourage growing testimonies rather than static ones.

    I remember a talk by Elder Gillespie (used to be in the 70) a few years ago (maybe in our stake, since his son is in our stake) in which he talked about the allegory of the olive tree, and talked about the canopy of the trees overtaking the roots in the context of roots of testimony not growing at the same rate as the “visible” testimony — a similar concept, I guess.

  15. Is some basic training in this, along with a basic understanding of epistemology, necessary for intellectual humility?

    I think it’s mainly humility that’s required for intellectual humility.

  16. Important reminders, Kevin. I gave up any illusions of knowing much of anything in my 20s. Now I mostly read a lot and look for patterns that make sense to me and hope that those patterns are meaningful to a few people besides me. I try strenuously to avoid the delusion that the patterns I see somehow indicate a moral or existential superiority over people less interested in such patterns. But it’s easy in a setting where people don’t read as much for strange and awkward asymmetries to arise in conversations and social encounters. I’m hoping that learning more about sports and gardening (areas where I have historically had severe cognitive deficits) will help.

  17. Thanks, Kevin. A road well traveled perhaps. #3 and #4 have a wonderful resonance with me and I expect many others by the comments.

  18. Great thoughts, Kevin.

    Perhaps there are advantages to teaching watered-down gospel principles in Church, but I have found that gospel study, scriptural study, and Church history to be the most complex subjects (and most interesting) that I have ever studied. LDS topics generally keep me quite humble ALL the time. I have seldom, if ever, attained a sense of mastery in the LDS arena. I routinely discover that my gospel knowledge is incomplete, and that I still have a lifetime and more of learning ahead of me.

    Those who comment on my blog evidently agree with me — another source of humility.

  19. Stephanie says:

    My oldest son sounds a lot like you. He recently discovered what a smarty pants he is. If he intentionally tanks his junior year, I will kick his butt.

  20. Studying Bayesian statistics as an undergrad taught my former cocksure self that we know nothing for sure. The passage of time generates more and varied data that constantly requires me to update the models in my life. I don’t know if that counts as itellectual humility but it has brought me a great deal of peace.

  21. I will never forget sitting in constitutional law at Harvard Law School and the professor using the socratic method on one of my classmates whom we all knew was in a different league. After about ten minutes of going back and forth about whether Nazi’s should be allowed to march in Skokie my classmate launched into a three or four minute exposition of free speech issues. When he concluded my prof clapped his hand to his head and stuttered “I, I, I have nothing more I can add to that.” It was the nerd equivalent of sitting courtside at game six of the 1998 finals when Jordan drained the 20-footer to put the Bulls up by one.

  22. I agree with you, but its ‘not allowed’ to question or doubt in the church…for most people anyway. You ask one question and you’re immediately labeled a pot-stirrer, one of little faith, a sinner, inactive, jack mormon, or ‘weird’ by the majority. Whatever term they use, you’re looked down upon, blacklisted, distrusted, and even pitied (oh, one of such little faith!). You ask an question, and you get a ‘pat answer’ from the many members who have never been challenged in their life to see the gray between the black and white.

    When I started questioning the dogma I was always fed growing up, you’d think I had stripped my garments off and burned them with my BOMs in the front yard while dancing around the pile naked, by the reaction I got from family, friends, members. These were not radical questions either…just questioning how much God really controls, or the nature of priesthood blessings, etc. Its not like I was running around screeching about JS and treasure seekers and stuff like that.

    Its the same convo the Bloggernaccle has about the term “know”. Its become impossible to simply ‘hope’ or have ‘faith’. Thats not good enough anymore.

    Its not good enough to question and seek answers…to question is to doubt is to sin. You must accept all with a perfect knowledge.

    Until that changes, it won’t be safe to question. And until its safe to question, members will remain in a stagnant pool of the dogma they have learned in Primary, and will never to progress to a higher understanding of the Gospel.

  23. Two Thumbs up.

    I also have had this thought and have been pondering more recently on this type of subject for the last two months or so. Not because of my own testimony, but those of family members and overall members of the church. I appreciate this post.

  24. Mark Brown says:

    A little more awareness of how very little we actually know and how much we need to learn on a subject would go a long way towards keeping our people from losing their faith needlessly.

    Yes, I agree with this.

    A couple of weeks ago when John Wooden died, I heard this statement attributed to him:

    “The things you learn after you know it all are the things which really count.”

  25. Kevin, that last paragraph spoke to me perfectly. I really wish I could describe things how you do.

    Re: #23 (Olive) – I do think we need to change the culture from questioning questions and assuming the worst to open acknowledgment. If someone poses an honest question, it shouldn’t be shunned or hushed up.

    However, in what areas is that appropriate? Would a discussion of the historicity of the Book of Mormon be appropriate in a primary/youth Sunday School class (I guess the answer could be “perhaps”?)? What about a discussion of post-Manifesto polygamy or blacks and the priesthood in an Elder’s Quorum or Relief Society with potentially new members with the early beginnings of a testimony or new investigators?

    Don’t get me wrong. I actively promote the asking of questions. That’s how this whole Mormon thing got started. But where do you make the changes?

  26. Messing around with so many of you in the ‘Nacle has been great for my intellectual humility in multiple ways: in addition to realizing I don’t know hardly anything, I’m also aware of much of the work that has been done by so many others. This awareness has prevented me from trying to reinvent the wheel a couple of times.

  27. Awesome Kevin! Your humility is so refreshing for someone of your stature (intellectually). Reading your post, it felt like I was reading my own life story. Among my peers and family I am also considered the “whiz kid” or sorts. I just started my PhD in Aerospace Engineering, however, and I’m definitely below average (perhaps far below) comparatively. I marvel that somehow the stars aligned for me to get to this point.

    Every time I think I have it figured out a quick look at the b’nacle reminds me of my extreme average-ness. So many people in the ‘nacle are so much more brilliant than me, I often wonder how they have so much time to know so much about so many things.

    As for your last paragraph, I guess I don’t see it quite the same. I think we should be encouraging people to find the truth (whatever that is). In many cases the little tidbit of information completely blown out of proportion can be a stepping stone to greater things, more enlightenment, etc. Even leaving the church can be a route to rediscovering God. I am thankful that I had a community such that I could analyze all the tidbits openly and honestly and readjust (but not entirely lose) my testimony (thanks John Dehlin). I guess I think personal growth is more important than one’s commitment to any one individual organization or school of thought.

    Thanks for the post!

  28. I don’t know everything. I know that for sure. But I do know that I know quite a bit. Is it wrong of me to acknowledge this? I could make a list of all the events in my life that have illustrated that many people around me recognise that this is true.

    I don’t, though, because that goes from acknowledging reality to becoming boastful. At the same time, I find self-deprecation is often used in place of humility. I think it is possible to be humble without demeaning yourself. I also think it is important to admit when you don’t know something, rather than try to fake your way through it in order to maintain an appearance of omniscience.

  29. “I do know that I know quite a bit.”

    Such is the beginning of true wisdom.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    jmb275, what I was trying to say in that last paragraph is that once you swallow the pill, you can’t stop, you’ve got to keep going down the rabbit hole. So I think what you are saying is consistent with my point. The mistake people make is they learn some new thing and think they’re now expert on that subject and they just stop learning *more*. Take faith vel non in the church out of it; I just don’t want people to rely on some out of context bit of polemic they wander into on the internet and then think they’re experts on the subject. Take for example the whole blood atonement and firing squad issue that was in the media recently. How many people who learned about that and freaked out over it haven’t even bothered to read the seminal article on the subject that was recently featured on the home page of the Dialogue website? On most issues like that there is already an existing literature, and I see people just ignoring it left and right.

  31. NorthboundZax says:

    Kevin, as usual, I enjoyed reading your thought provoking posts. One aspect I particularly enjoyed in this, though, I think was unintentional (not sure) – the beginning and ending with deep ironies of what it means to have intellectual humility. The first, of course, is the irony in Socretes’ position you point out, but your last paragraph is dripping with just as deep of an irony. In effect, the last paragraph claims that if only others had as much intellectual humility as we have, their intellectual reservations would evaporate.

    It seems a bit wide of your usually more ecumenical positions, so maybe it was subtly intentional…

  32. Rude Dog says:

    My first post at this site, long time lurker. I appreciate this post. I’ve always had a problem with the lack of humility juxtaposed with claims of such grandeur (additional scripture, restoration of priesthood keys, modern day revelation, nature of God) to the point that most don’t realize the gravity of even the mere possibilities these claims posits in our latter day. Many here comment on the humility any rationally thinking human should have walking out of their first semester of biology, zoology, chemistry, astronomy, realizing that the only thing one knows is how much one doesn’t know. However when it comes to the truly amazing religious questions of a power so improbable, so incomprehensible, so high above our own understanding, we as a collective church blurb out in almost incoherent dribble about “knowing” the intimacy of this power. “I know this _______ is true” has become so common, so kitschy that it is actually keeping most from truly starting the path to at least a miniscule understanding. Actually, I think our little finite minds are lucky to even have hope of asking the right questions towards the mind of God, let alone “knowing”. “Knowing” is one of the most haphazard statements we make in this church.
    I’ve been diligent in my study, and have carefully weighed the evidence of some of the claims of the restored Gospel. After many years of humble study, I have found some claims problematic, that have no solution. I’m average in the smarts department, excellent in the dicipline of study department, and very good at recognizing back-peddling and double speak when I see it. Some of our defense of controversial subjects fits this bill. Regardless, in the end, the only thing I know is that I don’t know. I doubt any one “knows”. Hell, we don’t even know if the medium we call the “Spirit” that most here base a testimony from originates from without, or from within. Judging by the vast amount of spritual truth claims by opposing religions, and even non-religions, I’d wager it’s the latter.
    Anyway, I enjoy the intellectual approach here and hope I’m still welcome. Oh, and the humor here is world class.

  33. Eveningsun says:

    Re this: A little more awareness of how very little we actually know and how much we need to learn on a subject would go a long way towards keeping our people from losing their faith needlessly.

    Doesn’t the entire post also lead to this ? — A little more awareness of how very little we actually know and how much we need to learn on a subject would go a long way towards keeping ‘you people’ from maintaining your faith blindly.

    What are we to make of a line of argument that leads with equal directness to mutually contradictory conclusions? Equally well to the faith-affirming and the faith-undermining?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for intellectual humility. I just don’t think it’s a very effective prop for positive belief of any kind. You can use it to knock believers just as easily as you can use it to knock skeptics.

  34. Dana Repouille says:

    I never realized how much alike our grade-school experiences were. I got my first taste of Straight-As in third grade, and sought them from that point on. From 9th through 12th grade, all I got were As. However, laziness set in when I enrolled for my 11th and 12th grade classes. I replaced the “college bound” classes that had been selected for me with “vocational” classes that I knew would be easy-As. So even though I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, at the top of my class, I had never truly challenged myself.

    Although I could have easily received a full scholarship from my state university, I opted to enlist in the military. It took me 19 years to earn a Bachelor of General Studies degree. I only did that so I would have something to put on my resume when I retired from military service.

    People in my ward and stake all think I am some sort of scholar, but the truth is, my veneer of Gospel scholarship is quite thin. Don’t scratch too hard.

    Thanks for the enlightening blog post.

  35. I have a hard time imagining you, Kevin, as anyone’s intellectual inferior. =)

    I am, however, convinced that I’m the smartest person in my department, unless I consider how many of them get away with doing virtually no work and still get paid. Maybe I am the dumb one.