What is academic humility?

During an interactive session he had with the academic staff of the Faculty of Arts, University of Ilorin, on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, Prof. Jacob Kehinde Oluponna of Harvard University, USA, struck a chord in the hearts of his audience.

The Professor of African and American Studies/ African Religious Tradition in the renowned University disclosed that he would always give anything he wrote to a younger person in his university for editing before processing it for publication. He stressed that no one knows it all and nothing detracts from his status if he subjects his work to that process.

Apart from his affability, simplicity and honesty in providing details of his career, including his experience at a Nigerian university (in the South West) from where he moved on to achieve his global academic reputation, Prof. Oluponna demonstrated the quintessential academic humility and really motivated those who were there. He didn’t draw attention to himself or his academic achievements; his works spoke for him and he was given a standing ovation after the interaction for his erudition and humility.

Also, while delivering his inaugural lecture on May 23, 2013, a foremost Professor of over two decades in this University, Yasir Anjola Quadri, told his audience in the jam-packed Auditorium that anytime he appeared in class to teach, he learnt from his students just as his students learnt from him.

Through that submission, Prof. Quadri was not only reinforcing the functional theory of learning that the learner is not a tabula rasa or empty slate, he was also making manifest the academic humility that characterises genuine scholars among whom he is at the forefront.

The last example here is Olu Obafemi, a senior Professor of the University of Ilorin of the larger than his frame fame. This writer had chanced upon Prof. Obafemi’s recent work, The Mysteries of God: A Translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Adiitu Olodumare (2012) and obtained it immediately. Wow! It is a good read for everyone!

In his preface to the masterpiece he offers us, apart from saying rather humbly that he “had neither training nor practice in the art of translation”, he notes that he had given his first draft of the work to, among other people, Dr Lere Adeyemi, a prolific and erudite Associate Professor of Yoruba in this University, with “a mandate to edit it as brutally as possible”. He goes further to say that what Dr Adeyemi did “was far less ‘savage’ than I commissioned him to”.

Though what academic humility means is apparent from the three foregoing illustrations, in clear terms, it means that attribute of scholars which makes them to have a thirst for knowledge, seek to do it better and strive to learn and try new and more things, to paraphrase Dr. Sandra Kaplan. It involves not bragging if one knows, and not being adamant on error when one’s fault is pointed out.

In essence, there are two simple statements that characterize those who are academically humble: “I am sorry” and “I don’t know”. It concerns being respectful and not being arrogant as knowledge is infinite but human capacity is limited. Actually, the more a person knows, the more he realises he knows little as he is confronted with the sheer volume of knowledge yet to be acquired.

This reminds one of the academic humility of the great English scientist, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who was/is renowned for his several life-changing inventions. When he was acknowledged as knowledgeable, Newton said that he was just like a mere boy “playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then…whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” In his humility, he had not even started swimming not to talk of reaching the shores of knowledge!

Academic humility is the trait of true scholars and the University of Ilorin fortunately has them in abundance. The academic humility of many of our academics here is amazing, honestly. There are many Professors who give this writer encouraging feedbacks on this column. Just two weeks ago, one of them said he learnt a lot every time he read this column and he told his family so. The Alma Mater was utterly embarrassed but the respected Professor said he was only telling the truth!

The opposite of academic humility is academic arrogance, which is another kettle of fish. The Yoruba say that it is the empty drum that makes the loudest noise. Therefore, as T. S. Elliot tells us in memorable words, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”