My Lifelong Lesson in Humility

Author: Lawrence Cunningham

Editor’s Note: For a veteran professor, growing older as students stay the same age, staying fresh in the classroom requires “the discipline of humility,” theologian Larry Cunningham wrote in 2007. The unpretentious prof’s paean to the humbling power of the lecture hall is our latest Magazine Classic.


University professors are not famous for their humility. Indeed, the mass media are famous for depicting, almost as a stereotype, the haughty professor who scorns his students, snubs junior members of the department and spends his leisure in malicious tittle tattle. Such professors become especially enraged if one of their members gains a popular reputation, since that is “nonscholarly.” One-time Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as haughty as they get, is famous for having observed that professors fight so ferociously because the stakes are so low.

The other side of the stereotype is the absent-minded professor, decked out in soup-stained tie and an old tweed jacket, living in the proverbial ivory tower, permitted his (or increasingly her) eccentricities because, except for those who do research on poison gas or the like, they are mostly harmless. As I myself have observed, in my rare cynical moments, a university faculty position is high-class welfare for those who otherwise would dither about, annoying those who actually get things done.

These characterizations are, of course, stereotypes but do have some thin root in reality. In defiance of the stereotype, I submit that being a professor in a university is, in fact, a noble thing. It carries with it a circumscribed but awesome responsibility, if one is to credit the fact that every year, at not an inconsiderable expense, parents entrust their offspring to the collective care of professors. In fact, being a worthy professor is a lifelong exercise in humility. This came to me, humbling in its own right, with my awful realization of how long I have been in academe.

While looking for something in a notebook in preparation for teaching my freshmen seminar this past term, it dawned on me, almost in a flash, that I have been in this business for a long time. The naked fact is that this is the 18th time I have taught this seminar to freshmen here at Notre Dame. So. By a rough calculation, 400 or 500 young persons have sat through these lectures over the years. Not that teaching freshmen has ever been a burden. I had taught at another university before coming to Notre Dame, and in those years—nearly 20—the large introductory course was “mine.” Still and all, that adds up to nearly four decades in the classroom.

As T.S. Eliot once intoned in The Love Song of J. AlfredPrufrock: “I grow old . . . I grow old.”

iTunes and such

Most times I do not feel old, even among little hints and signs that my becoming older is fact. Long gone are the days when it was possible to say in class “Do you remember the day Reagan was shot?” That exercise in asking students for a historical memory must be constantly updated. Even 9/11, used as an example, happened when the current students in my class were entering into the fresh flush of adolescence. The younger professors in my department have no experiential knowledge of what it was to be a Catholic in the old days before Vatican II. Most younger priests on campus could not say the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. And a sure sign of the geezer syndrome is to wax eloquent about the good old days before computers (I wrote my first six books longhand and then typed them out with the two-fingered method) or, what is worse, to insist that in earlier times life was tough and now everyone is coddled.

A more telling sign of age is the fleeting fear that no longer is one connecting to the students in any meaningful fashion. Long distant are the days when it was possible to be considered “cool” or “hip,” and only the foolish among us try since there is nothing as preposterous and, in a way, sad about the professor who attempts to be so. Thus: no attempt to learn what music they are listening to; no need to master all of the media they use with such staggering ease (what the hell is [are?] iTunes?); don’t even try to figure out which celebrity persons are “hot,” especially if it is not clear what constitutes being “hot.” Surrender to the fact that students will have footnotes making reference to web sources rather than books. Surrender to the reality that the reason I find excuses for not attending their dorm liturgies is that they schedule them at a time when I go to bed. The brutal truth is that I am the age of their grandparents. If it is true, as the poet says, I grow old, that is to be juxtaposed to the fact that they are always the same age.

Keeping fresh

There is, however, a way of keeping fresh in the lecture hall, but that freshness demands a discipline of humility. Here it is only necessary to remind myself that my task is to teach theology and not to be a companion to my students. The criteria for achieving some modicum of success as an older professor in relationship to one’s students would include the following:

(1) Have a profound belief in the subject one is teaching, and let that teaching flow from a habit of personal study; study, on occasion, reflected in publication or other signs of research. Students may not appreciate this but most of us older professors, unless we are suffering from intellectual hardening of the arteries, are better today than we were 20 years ago simply because we have learned more. An authentic professor is one who, to paraphrase Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, gladly learns and gladly teaches.

A profound belief in one’s subject demands a sense of personal humility adequate enough to say, at least to one’s self, that I have not mastered my field no matter how eloquent I am about my reputation as a scholar. That humility drives my urge to continue studying and to allow that study to flow over to what I say in class.

(2) Possess a strong feeling for the care of students entrusted to our courses. It is a pleasure to teach freshmen because they have not been corrupted by the worst viruses that live in the academic body. They have not yet learned all the secrets of getting by without too much work; they are still eager, by and large, to learn; and they have not yet wearied at the thought of writing yet one more essay. It is rejuvenating to face a class of mildly but eagerly fearful first-year students, new pencils and pristine notebooks at the ready. When one tires of such an audience, it is time to pack it in.

The same holds true for upper-class students and graduate students, albeit in a somewhat different way. To pass on what one has learned is as noble a thing as I can imagine. I love the Latin motto of the Dominicans in general and Saint Thomas Aquinas in particular: contemplata aliis tradere—to hand on to others what one has already contemplated. We only get hints now and again of the impact we may have had on a given student. Many years ago I went shopping for a pickup truck for my wife. A potter, she routinely deals in tons or half tons of things like clay. Stopping at an outdoor car lot I started walking toward the office when a guy stepped outside looking like a car salesman from central casting: slicked back hair, an American flag necktie, a polyester suit and tinted aviator sunglasses. From a distance, he pointed at me and cried: “Martin Buber! I and Thou!"

It is rare that a truck salesman knows the name of an esteemed Jewish philosopher, but, I soon learned, he had been in a class of mine and the personalism of Buber had made a big impression on him. Although I did not buy a truck from him, he smilingly assured me that he would always treat me as a “Thou” and never an “it.” That happened 25 years ago, but I still cherish the memory.

(3) Cultivate a certain habit of humility with respect to one’s students and their level of learning. After all, if they knew everything, what need would they have of taking classes? If students insist on spelling “altar” as “alter” it is a sign not of stupidity but the ambiguities of the English language and the flaws in spellcheck. If they do not immediately grasp the point of my explanation, it is not because they are dimwitted but because I have been explaining it for years and they are probably hearing it for the first time. Furthermore, they may not be as interested in the subject as their professor is; after all, they are passing through but we have dedicated our lives to our subject.

The shy students

A subtle but real temptation exists at Notre Dame to absorb the rhetoric of our public image as a highly competitive university whose every entering class is more brilliant than the last. Not every student in our classrooms, however, was a former valedictorian or possessed of a perfect SAT score. Those students with the stellar backgrounds are easy to teach because one can load the work on their backs and they will carry the burden with ease. They also flatter our self-image because they go on to do brilliant things and, in their success, add luster to our reputation.

The true humility of the teacher (and, equally, the administrator) becomes manifest when we have an open eye and a soft spot for the shy students who turn in barely satisfactory papers. The cultivation of that kind of humility (the word itself has an etymological root that calls to mind “earthiness") gives the serious teacher a certain slant on things which says, in effect, that this person is worth my attention although my reputation will not be buffed up because that student will not get a medal at the annual convocation.

There are a plethora of highly learned colleagues in my department, and it is my experience that the most brilliant of them are also the hardest workers and the most productive scholars. Every now and again one hears from alumni that they pine for the good old days when professor this or that never published a word but was an exemplary teacher. It is perfectly possible to be an excellent teacher and never write; we have two luminous examples of teachers—Socrates and Jesus—who seemingly never put pen to paper. It is also true that it irritates me when a fellow faculty member says that he or she has not gotten their “work done” because of the demands of teaching. Well, I am tempted to say, teaching is your work and your “work” as a researcher is what makes you an able teacher.

Nonetheless, teaching and research are two sides of a single coin. The best way to think of the authentic academic is to think of someone who is a servant to their discipline. The 12th century writer Bernard of Chartres said of his generation that they were dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The saying holds. My old professor in Europe, the Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, spoke of “reaching up to the mind of Aquinas.” I was simply trying to reach up to Lonergan’s mind. True humility consists not of breast-beating but being in possession of a clear knowledge of where one stands in the continuum of things. This means, in turn, that we are not the brightest, the sharpest, the most clever but, rather, honest workers in the little lot of academic land where we have been lucky enough to have been placed. We all have a lot to learn and a little something to teach.

A paradox

These reflections bring me to a paradox: I am intensely proud of being a professor at Notre Dame but, in my pride, am humbled about what I do not know and, what is even more humbling, that what I do know I convey badly to my students. Much is said today in educational circles about testing outcomes—how much a student actually learns in a given course and over the years to degree—but, in one sense, testing is not a bad idea. After all, as a comedian once quipped, we do not want to go to a doctor who flunked heart. In almost any academic field, however, certain things cannot be accurately measured.

First among these untestable outcomes is this: Do we impart to our students love of learning? Will our future professionals continue with their education? Will our graduates gain a lifelong curiosity about ideas? One of the most joyous moments in my life as teacher occurs when a former student writes or calls asking for more books to read or—even better—suggests that I should read or hear something they ran across that would make me a better teacher or a more informed theologian.

Again, I am inordinately proud to be a professor at Notre Dame, but humility insists that I admit that I have never aspired to be anything beyond that. One of my best friends, cut off too early by inoperable cancer, said that it was his task in life to be exactly in the same place—in his office, grading blue books or reading—when students came back to campus for a visit. The teacher is in it for the long haul. The original meaning of the word universitas meant the guild of teachers who made up the medieval university. The core of the university is not the administration or the student body or, God help us, the football team. It is the community of scholars—the universitas—who have made a lifelong commitment to those who come to us for a few years to engage in the task of mutual learning. To be in that community is, paradoxically enough, both a reason for pride and an occasion for humility. I, for one, glory in the former and, on my best days, feel more than a bit of the latter.

Christian hagiography records the story of an early martyr named Cassian who lived in the Italian city of Imola. A schoolmaster, he was stabbed to death by his pagan students after he refused to renounce his Christian faith. So, on August 13, Cassian’s feast day, I will pray that through his intercession I can keep on learning and from that learning become a better teacher. It is a modest request, as all prayers ought to be.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame and a regular contributor to this magazine.