Friday, January 18, 2013

Much To Be Humble About

You may have heard that old joke about humility.  Goddesses, for instance, have much to be humble about, which means that they (we) can be both arrogant and befittingly modest at the same time*.

This is harder for mere humans.  Hence the need for courses on humility.  David Brooks,  from the New York Times columnist stable, is giving a course on humility at Yale University.  Given the fact that David isn't exactly humble himself, the course has provoked the kind of friendly kidding many think it deserves.  Charles Pierce, for example:
New York Times columnist David Brooks is teaching a course at Yale on "Humility."
...with a duck on his head.
No, not really. Do not mock this. Do not mock the fact that Brooks is going to teach about humility by assigning his own writings to a captive audience.
The duck may be a reference to Terry Pratchett's Diskworld books which include a street person who wears a duck on his head but is unaware of it.

I feel somewhat divided about this.  On the one hand, the street cred needed to teach a course in humility should perhaps include being humble in the first place.  On the other hand, humble people rarely get any notice whatsoever, and are thus unlikely to be asked to give courses at Yale or write columns for the New York Times.

But then I also agree that too many people are arrogant and have inflated balloon views of their own merits.  Not taking ourselves so very seriously, not hating on others so very much, those would be most excellent achievements.  Or just being aware of what we all share:  our humanity, and what connects us all.  Or understanding that many of our talents are random happenstances, not something we have "deserved" by hard work or genetic endowment.

Here's another snag in Brooks' thoughts such as these:

"All of us have been raised in a culture that encourages us to think well of ourselves and to follow your passion and all that kind of stuff," he continued. "I don't see why it is ridiculous to spend a few months reading people who tell us not to be all that self-impressed, to suspect you aren't as smart, virtuous and aware as you think. Surely this is a potentially useful antidote for me or anybody else."

 A very large number of human beings have, in fact, always been brought up to be humble or at least to pretend humility, to let others take the center stage, to become good cheerleaders and never the stars in the field.  This is not just true of the way girls have traditionally been brought up but it is also true of the traditional norms applied to the Lower Classes in England and of the social norms for American blacks in the past.

Which leads to my question:  Who is the target group for Brooks' lectures?  Some people would mightily benefit from being taught to be more humble, others would benefit from the exact reverse.  But Brooks doesn't appear to see this complexity.
*There's a story about how I became the avatar of a snake goddess.  Fighting against a very thorough humility training is part of that story.