Kent Dunnington is associate professor of philosophy at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Texas A&M University and an M.T.S. in theology from Duke University. He is the author of Addiction and Virtue (2011) and is currently editing a book entitled The Uncertain Center: An Arthur McGill Reader.
The current crisis in higher education provides an opportunity to think more carefully about the aims of education. Following the trajectory set by studies in virtue epistemology, this project explores what we learn about education by asking what kind of personal characteristics are the ideal outcome of an education? Accordingly, the project explores the virtue of intellectual humility, a highly touted if not clearly understood intellectual virtue. Surprisingly, there is a consensus view in both philosophical and psychological literature that intellectual humility is a cognitive property. The philosophers claim the intellectually humble person is one who resists overestimating her own intellectual abilities and achievements and also resists underestimating the intellectual abilities and achievements of others.
The psychologists claim the intellectually humble person is one who has developed the cognitive skills of recognizing and overcoming certain self-serving cognitive biases. The central claim of this project is that attempts to define intellectual humility as a cognitive disposition or skill are deeply flawed because the dispositions and skills at issue are compatible with narcissism. To support this claim, the project engages with a growing body of psychological literature on the so-called Imposter Phenomenon. Persons who experience Imposter Phenomenon suffer from feelings of fraudulence rooted in comparisons of their own intellectual abilities to others. Significantly, people who suffer from Imposter Phenomenon share the characteristic marks of intellectual humility on the consensus view. In addition, the Imposter Phenomenon is a serious obstacle to intellectual flourishing. This presents a conundrum: intellectual humility as currently understood might just as well be an intellectual vice as an intellectual virtue. The project attempts to unpack this conundrum by showing how both the consensus view of intellectual humility and the prevalence of the Imposter Phenomenon reflect an underlying intellectual culture that places the self at the center of the learning enterprise. This conclusion invites a reconsideration of the virtue of intellectual humility. The project aims to recover an older understanding of humility as being rooted in right desire rather than right belief. The intellectually humble person is one who desires truth as an end in itself rather than as a means of asserting one’s intellectual status. If intellectual humility is necessary for intellectual flourishing, and if intellectual humility is a function of what we most deeply desire, then what kinds of institutional practices are necessary for developing persons whose desires make them intellectually humble? This project will focus on four kinds of university practice that tend to enshrine a narcissistic approach to the learning endeavor: disciplinary specialization, the entrenchment of a strong view of intellectual property, the privileging of writing over dialogue, and the marginalization of philosophy and theology from the center of university life.