12/17/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Education for Humility

In higher education there is an ongoing conversation to determine, "what is a liberal arts education?" and "what are the outcomes of a liberal arts education?" This very recent interest in the nature of liberal education arises in defense against a tide of more "instrumental" kinds of education and paths that have rather specific career goals in mind. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote that the first aim of education is to "furnish the backroom of the mind," meaning that a liberal education gives us a broad background knowledge that "furnishes" our minds and supports us in all our endeavors. 1 After this first aim, a liberal education is also intended to result in the ability to communicate effectively in speaking and in writing, and to provide both the capacity and the inclination to think analytically and logically. A liberal education should then, quite obviously, be a perfect preparation for those more applied paths, such as law or medicine or business.

But there is another outcome of a liberal education. A crucial result of a liberal education is an awareness of what and how much we do not know, and this awareness of the scope of what we do not know leads to a state of humility for a liberally educated person

When we think about what we do not know, first, there are the questions for which nobody anywhere knows the answers, about which all of humanity is ignorant. And second, there are those areas, for each of us, of our own personal, individual ignorance, the things about which we ourselves know nothing, even after we have a college degree or two or three.

Let us contemplate the questions to which no one knows the answers, or least not the whole answers, and probably never will know the answers -- and for which there may not even be an answer, or maybe not any one answer. Our philosophers, bless their hearts, keep us alerted to many of these great questions:

What is right and what is wrong?

What is justice?

What is beauty?

How do we know that we know? What do we mean by "knowledge?"

There are such great, unanswered questions in every academic area. We could ask any faculty member to name the great, unanswered questions of her or his discipline, and we would hear questions such as:

In Economics: How do we establish stable economic systems?

In Government: What is the best form of government?

In Public Policy: How do we stop wars from happening?

In Psychology: What is the connection between the mind and the body?

In Education: How should we teach and how do we learn?

In Business: How do we balance profit and social responsibility?

and lastly, the great question of Literature: What is love?

In my own field of science, we would hear questions such as:

What is life? What is death?

Where did the universe come from? Where is the universe going?

What are these particles we talk about -- atoms, Higgs bosons? Are they just figments of our limited imaginations?

When I was an undergraduate at Furman University, I was so enthralled by my Philosophy courses that I almost changed my major from Chemistry to Philosophy. But, I thought (at age 19) that the questions in Philosophy are questions that can never be answered, whereas the questions in Chemistry will have nice, neat, firm answers. Oh, how wrong I was! Even in science, we will never reach the end of our questioning.

There are, in fact, two reasons why we cannot find final answers in science. First, science operates and can only operate by inductive reasoning. That is, we look at a lot of evidence and we come to a generalization. Inductive reasoning is inherently limited and flawed because we always have a limited amount of evidence, and we can always miss a crucial piece of evidence. We thought that the sun moved around the earth, until Nicolas Copernicus and others found evidence to the contrary. We thought that diseases occurred spontaneously, until Anton van Leeuvenhoek made a microscope and observed microorganisms, and others connected those organisms to diseases. Inductive reasoning can -- and does -- fail us.

The second limitation, not just in science but in all areas of knowledge, is the cultural and technological context of the times. What you explore depends first on the questions that you think to ask, and then on your available technology, and that technology depends, in turn, on what else you already know. For example, you have to have a microscope to see the germs, so you have to understand the optics of making a microscope and the process for grinding lenses, and then you have to see the connection between germs and diseases.

The context and the culture frame the very mental models that we make to understand the world. For example, the way that we think about the human brain and mind has changed as technology has changed. When the best technology was a pump, the brain was seen as a set of pumps; when electrical switches came into use, the brain was modeled as a set of switches; now that we have computers, we see the brain as a computer.

The answers to our questions are first bound by the limits of inductive reasoning, and then shaped and constrained by the existing knowledge base in which we operate. We do make progress on these big questions -- we do add, slowly and sometimes painfully, to what we know. But even when we think we have an answer, it can change later. All that we think we know is tentative and is fragmentary. We have to be humble in the face of these limitations.

Now, let us shift focus from the ignorance of the whole human race, to our own individual extents of ignorance. Each of us does know some things. We each have a college major or a specialty that we know something about. And, we do have a "general education" -- some knowledge of everything else to "furnish" our minds. But, oh, how much we do not know!

Let me use as an example the sad level of my own ignorance. I do know something about chemistry well, maybe just physical chemistry, since organic chemistry has moved on since my studies in 1963. Even in my specialty of thermodynamics, I have not paid attention to the literature since 2008, and next year when I become a professor again, I will have to remedy my ignorance. And oh -- despair! I have forgotten so many things that once I knew! Have you not, my faculty colleagues, gone back and read an article that you yourself wrote some years ago, and been astonished at how brilliant you were back then?

Outside of chemistry, my ignorance abounds. My biology is out of date. I speak only a little French and German, and even then with an abominable Southern American accent. I have no technical understanding of music and I cannot play any instrument. I could go on and on about my own ignorance. More and more, I find myself giving up on some realms of knowledge and information. We all have to filter out the information "noise," choosing between the information we need and the information we can live without.

The realization of how much there is to know and how to live with our own ignorance is a daunting task. Imagine the whole universe of knowledge around us. Within that universe, think of what we do know as a small, spherical bubble. As we learn more, that bubble of knowledge gets bigger. But, as the bubble gets bigger, the surface area of that sphere of knowledge, the area that intersects with the unknown universe of knowledge, gets even bigger: The area of the surface of a sphere is 4 π r2, where r is the radius of the sphere. So as we know more, the surface of our interaction with the unknown gets larger as the square of what we do know. If we know three times as much, then we become nine times as aware of what we do not know.

The more we know, the more we must confront how much we do not know, and the more we are humbled by the ignorance of all of us together and of each of us individually. This resulting state of humility actually is a desirable state. It is a desirable state because that state of mind makes us open to asking more questions and finding more answers. It is that awareness of the height and breadth of what we do not know that directs us to the very best questions and to the best path toward new knowledge. T. S. Eliot wrote, 2 "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started...and know the place for the first time." Humility is what keeps us ceaselessly exploring, and coming back to where we started again and again, with new perspectives and vibrant new questions, "knowing that place as if it were the first time." Humility is what keeps us intellectually vigorous, ever curious and committed to gaining the knowledge that will make the world a better place.

So, my wish for all liberal arts students is that your liberal arts education will indeed furnish your minds and will indeed prepare you to communicate clearly and to think logically, but I also wish for you that your education will leave you humbly aware of how much we all do not know and how much you yourself still do not know, and that your humility will inspire you throughout your life to do something about what you yourself do not know, and even to do something to answer the great questions asked by the whole human race.

Adapted from the Mills College Convocation Address, "Education for Humility," September 28, 2012

1 Nannerl O. Keohane, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 29, 2012.

2 T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, 1943.