“I’ll Just Google It”

Students today have instant access to more information than previous generations could have imagined. For some, this begs a question: “Why should I bother learning it in school if I can just Google it?” John Mark challenges the skewed understanding of knowledge behind this question and calls teachers to cultivate intellectual humility—in themselves, first of all, and then in their students. Humility, he believes, is the path to true knowledge and insight in a world glutted with information.

We get our students asking us this question in multiple different ways: “But why do I need to memorize facts when I can look up facts on the Internet? No problem. We have Wikipedia. We have, well, Google, just in general. We have facts available to us all the time.”

The Question Behind the Question

As I’ve been doing, I’m planning today to talk about what is going on behind the scenes. What is the question behind the question or the assumption behind the question? But I’m going to do a little bit of an aside and attack the question directly for a little bit before we get into intellectual character.

So what’s going on behind the scenes? What is the student possibly thinking when asking, why do I need to memorize facts?

Well, I would say two are really closely related to each other. The first is that education is about information.

I had a student who was planning to drop out of school and go to do online school, who told me, “Oh yeah, I’m going to do online school. I’ll still be educated.” Education is about facts.

The second thing, or sorry, education is about information and information—this is the second thing—information is about facts.

These are two things that students assume when they think that they don’t need to learn the things we’re trying to teach because of the availability of Google.

Cognitive science tells us that the more you know, the more you can learn, and also, the more you know, the better you can process new information. There is information required in the education process, and information does include a lot of facts. But that’s not the only thing about education.

The third thing that students may be saying when they’re trying not to learn something based on the fact that they can Google things is that they are saying, they’re making this assumption that they can readily discern between facts and fiction when they read something online.

And I will hasten to say that I obviously can. I always know when I’m reading fake news and when I’m reading something true.

Or not. You will recognize that as the amount of information that’s available to us gets bigger and bigger, it becomes harder and harder for us to process and to figure out what’s true and what isn’t true, or even more importantly, what’s important and what’s not important.

Defining Intellectual Humility

What’s the intellectual character trait that we need to develop in our students if they are going through life thinking that they can always tell the difference between what’s true and what’s false?

I’m going to contend that that character trait is humility.

I’ll start by saying that humility is not, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “pretty women trying to think they’re ugly and clever men trying to think they’re fools.” It is not denying the good things about ourselves. Intellectual humility is not falsely declaring ourselves to be nothing. If that were the case, then Chesterton would be right when he says that kind of humility “would produce a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

So that’s not what I’m talking about when I say intellectual humility. It is not just denying the things we have to offer.

Rather, intellectual humility is recognizing our dependence on God, and it’s also treating others better than ourselves.

Authentic humility is an attempt to see ourselves as we really are. And notice I say an attempt to see ourselves as we really are. We don’t see ourselves very well. That’s why we absolutely need to develop friendships in our lives with people who will tell us the truth. Faithful are the wounds of a friend because we don’t see ourselves well.

We need to understand that we are made in God’s image. As such, we have the ability to seek truth and to find truth.

But we also need to recognize that we’re fallen. And as such, we are not perfect in our pursuit of truth. We have false motives. We have poor processing sometimes. All kinds of things go on in our pursuit of truth. We mess up. Humility recognizes that.

The Benefits of Humility

Why would I want to develop humility? What are the benefits? Again, there are many. I’ve chosen three.

The first is a growth of knowledge and insight. If I can rejoice when I’m proven wrong because I got to learn something, that’s a benefit of a lack of humility.

You know how often it’s been that we say something and somebody says, “No, you’re wrong.” And we go back and forth and at the end we’re both mad and neither of us has changed our point of view, and somebody missed out on an opportunity. Because one of the two was wrong, don’t know which one at this point, but that person missed an opportunity to put their mental model, make their mental model better, more like the world actually is.

Now we can all just in general recognize that we’re wrong about something. Like, I know I’m wrong about something. I don’t know what it is. So when you and I disagree about something, here’s an opportunity for me to recognize, maybe, one of the places that I’m wrong. I might not be wrong here, but if we can talk about it, not in terms of a conflict, not in the case where one of us is vanquished and the other one is victorious, but rather that the two of us together are trying to figure out which one of us is wrong so that person can benefit by now being right.

Think about how different our interactions would be around all of the things that we fight about. Our world would be richer and larger— this is the second thing—our world is richer and larger than if we are intellectually proud.

Third benefit: Our influence is increased if we’re humble.

I already mentioned the case of evangelism, but I’ll tell a personal story for this one. I told you that I grew up, or when I was younger, I had the reputation of always being right and defending my point of view as long as it took till the other person gave up. In 2007, I got a job offer to teach in Colorado. It was a tiny community. I knew one person in the community, but I decided I would do it.

And before I left, I heard some bad things about this community. I heard there are a bunch of legalists there. And I was young and vigorous, and I said, “Okay, well, the way you change a legalistic community is you change their children.” And so I’m going to go in, and I’m going to change this community by changing their children. You have enough experience to know how well this went.

So I got there, and I started teaching school, and one of the school board members was also a minister. He was my age. I was 23, I think, at the time. So he was young, and he really felt the responsibility of his task, of his role there as minister and as school board member.

And so I had this community pegged as a group of legalists, right?

So one day, this young minister got up, and he gave a sermon. And I was listening to this sermon, and I thought he said that you can’t worship God unless you’re wearing the right clothes. You can’t worship God properly unless you’re wearing the right clothes. So I took exception to this. I was wearing the right clothes, but I knew that you can worship God in whatever clothes you’re wearing at the time.

And so after church, I walked up to him and we started arguing. And wouldn’t you know, this is actually kind of embarrassing. It’s really embarrassing for both of us. We stood there and we argued in the parking lot until at least 1:30, I think it was 2:00 in the afternoon, while his wife and children sat in the van.

I ran into somebody who was every bit as stubborn as I was. And he was my boss. Back and forth, we argued.

That summer, I went back home to Ohio, and I worked for my dad. I was driving a truck, hauling farm machinery, and I was driving. I had hours and hours to think. And at some point, somebody said to me, “You know, you can either be right or you can be happy.”

And it clicked. I don’t have to argue with this guy.

Kept processing, went back with a different attitude. I started seeing the community for who they were. These were people who actually love God. They were doing the best they could. They had people from all over the eastern United States who had problems with their churches that moved out there. How do you make a—how do you forge a community from 100 different places? It was smaller than that, but you know what I mean. How do you forge such a community? It’s hard. And I recognized what they were doing in that second year.

My influence in that community was—I don’t want to brag—but it was a lot better. When I left after that second year, that minister thanked me for what I had done in that community. Why? Because I had demonstrated humility.

Now, that is not the end of the story. I am still working on developing humility in myself. I still lose influence because of times when I am too proud to hear another person’s point of view, and when I am too proud to recognize that I might be wrong.

But I go back to that story—that was a turning point in my life with that experience. And I have that man to thank. I’m so glad he was stubborn, even though I hated it at the time.

Developing Humility in Our Students

So how do we develop humility? Three practices in my classroom.

One is I try to model humility myself. I’m not perfect and would hesitate even to say that I’m good, but I’m at least trying.

I give my students an opportunity to study deeply.

And third, the third practice I use is that when a student brings something that they’re really sure is a dumb idea, I try to ask for the other side of the story.

So one of my—it was actually a former student—sent me an article about how math education is racist because you’re looking for the right answers, and that’s racist. And I said, “Okay, what’s the other side of the story? What’s going on here?” And I actually looked it up and we had a good conversation about it.

If you ask for the other side of the story, if you ask for the student to need to defend the point of view that they think is dumb, perhaps that will help them understand a little bit of what it takes to be humble.

It feels like with this subject that I’m just skimming past it really fast. There’s so much more.

But I have a vision for schools in which wisdom grows in our classrooms because our teachers are modeling intellectual humility and students are mimicking that model.

I have a vision for classrooms where we value truth over ego, where we recognize that our creation in— that we are created in God’s image, that we are fallen, and that God is working to redeem us to Himself.

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