Intellectual Humility (Educational Insights from Hogwarts, Part 8)

Hogwarts castle

One of the better educational moves that Dumbledore makes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is to add Firenze the Centaur to his teaching staff. Firenze is to share the duties of divination with Professor Trelawney, but unlike Trelawney, Firenze seems actually to know his subject. Nevertheless, Rowling writes that Firenze’s “priority did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaur’s knowledge, was foolproof” (604). In this moment, Firenze teaches the students something more important than anything they could learn about his “subject”—they learn intellectual humility. That this humility comes from one who is obviously well-qualified for his task is even more important. Firenze is wise, knowledgeable, and fully capable as a teacher, yet he recognizes that above all those things he must have humility.

Firenze teaches us this same valuable lesson if we dare to receive it. As teachers, it can be easy to think of how much we know that the students do not, and even if we are not puffed up, we can still view our task as mere information transferal. But what Firenze does for his students should be our aim with our own students—we are not transferring information alone; in fact, our primary goal is to teach and model virtue. And teaching and modeling virtue must include intellectual humility on the part of the teacher. To tell a student “I don’t know,” but to follow that up by seeking an answer is a great way to teach virtue. To tell students about the books that we are reading so that we can learn what we do not know is likewise a great example of teaching virtue. In both cases, it is also an excellent example of intellectual humility. So let us be always learning in front of our students with a humility that, like Firenze, impresses on our students that no one’s knowledge is foolproof, but that knowledge is worth pursuing nonetheless.

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