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In this essay Heidi Oberholtzer Lee argues that we need to teach and model in our classrooms the importance of reading with humility. This serves as a corrective to the promotion of reading strategies that primarily emphasize negativity and scorn, strategies that have been popularized by misapplications of Paul Ricoeur ’s “hermeneutic of suspicion.” More helpful to developing in students habits of critical thinking would be reading practices that teach them to approach a text interrogatively, engaging in dialogue with the text itself, its author, and its readers both in and outside the classroom. Ms. Lee is Assistant Professor of English at Messiah College.

In the 2009 issue of Profession, a journal of the Modern Language Association, Rita Felski calls for teachers of literature and literary theory to develop a new model of pedagogy to complement the teaching of a hermeneutics of suspicion so that not only can students learn to “read against the grain” but also to read “generously” and “reflectively” in a way that does “better justice to the energies and enthusiasms that drive our students.”1 She pinpoints a problem that many of us teaching literature, and presumably those teaching close reading in other disciplines, surely have noted in our own classrooms. More often we have achieved success in teaching our students how to read skeptically, which often translates into them reading scornfully, than we have, as Alan Jacobs notes, in teaching them how to “read lovingly” and “with intelligent charity.”2

Just this past year, for instance, I encountered this pedagogical problem when I assigned to the twenty-three English majors in my early American literature survey course a response paper that asked them to analyze the poetry of the colonial American, metaphysical poet Edward Taylor. I knew from previous experience that for the most part my students would likely not respond with great enthusiasm to Taylor ’s work. His poetry intellectualizes its subject matter and often explores metaphysical ideas through elaborate conceits, which are long metaphors that juxtapose against one another two seemingly unlike things that the poet then reveals to have a fruitful and provocative relationship. The language of metaphysical poetry is often convoluted and full of alliteration, extremely hard to read aloud as one gets tongue-tied trying to speak these phrases. Moreover, the rhyme and meter are exacting, and my students tend to experience them as “sing-song.”

The students in this particular class responded to the poetry of Taylor not unlike my previous classes, but there are three students’ responses that I would like to mention in particular to help frame this essay’s argument that we need to consider, teach, and model the importance of humility in our reading practices in the literature classroom. Reading with humility, by which I mean reading generously and hospitably, taking into account one’s own limitations and granting that others, whether the text, its author, or fellow interpreters and critics, might have insights to offer us, enhances our ability to learn. Further, it serves as an important corrective to teaching “critical thinking” as simply being critical, speaking only negatively, about a text. Critical thinking can, in fact, be taught more effectively through helping students to approach a text with humility, learning to listen to, value, and engage with others’ perspectives in a way that sharpens the mind.

In response to my Taylor assignment, one student, who throughout the semester impressed me as being especially bright, a very fine literary critic and budding young scholar, wittily quoted back to me in her paper some lines from Taylor himself. “Oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, [and] groans” she reported as being her reaction to Taylor’s poetry, and she then proceeded to detail how his rhymes and conceits, she thought, were rhetorically ineffective and failed to do much more than offer simplistic or cliché answers to the spiritual struggles that many face when confronted by the death of a loved one.3 Here, I thought at the time, is a student who is not dazzled by something merely because it is offered to her in the form of print and I as an authority figure have valorized it by assigning it, but rather this is a student who develops an opinion of her own, who critically analyzes the work before her. According to the definition of “critical analysis” provided by the evaluation forms that my own institution uses for course evaluation, “critical thinking” is autonomous thinking, and this student, in her cleverly explained disregard for Taylor’s poetry, demonstrated autonomy, it seemed to me. She required aesthetic and intellectual complexity of Taylor’s work in order for her to esteem it and did not take for granted its excellence simply because her book and I offered it to her in the authorizing form of print.4

A second student responded very differently and wrote in her paper that she had wept aloud as she read Taylor ’s poems, as both the form and content of his work had moved her deeply. The poems spoke to her on a personal level, she explained. In the class discussion that followed this writing assignment, as some of her classmates vigorously and scornfully derided Taylor’s poetry and what they called his ineffective poetic rhetoric, this student raised her hand repeatedly to speak on Taylor ’s behalf, to praise his poems, and to note how she had, in student parlance, “connected” with them. While pleased that she had enjoyed the reading selection for that day, quite frankly I was unimpressed by her relatively inarticulate expression of why she liked Taylor ’s poetry, her defense of his work not going beyond simple claims of its ability to “move” her. This was a student, I thought, who was a pleasure to have in class, but who ultimately did not demonstrate an ability to read or think critically. Her response was all emotional, not intellectual, not reasoned, not sophisticated.

After class, a third student approached me while the room was emptying and asked whether he could speak to me privately. As he then explained to me, most of his classmates’ responses to our reading that day had appalled him. He thought, he said, that they showed a lack of respect for the creative work of this poet. Regardless of how good or bad they thought this poet to be, he argued, his classmates should at least demonstrate an interest in learning about this metaphysical poetic technique and about what Taylor was trying to do in his work. This student, I had to acknowledge, was wiser than I in evaluating what was happening in my classroom. He noted a certain attitude of disrespect and arrogance in the classroom, a mode of reading and analysis that he thought was neither intellectually productive nor, I might add, spiritually productive. His questions prompted me to ask myself whether inadvertently I and my students had obstructed our ability to understand and thereby appreciate the text fully because of the methodology we had used to approach it. Richard Foster insists that “[a]rrogance and a teachable spiritare mutually exclusive.”5 If my class and I came to the text entirely convinced that we were more knowledgeable than the author and that our own time period was more “advanced” than his or hers, were we, as Foster indicates, limiting our own capacity to encounter truth and meaning in this text? Was I really helping my students to think critically, to read and analyze critically, if I simplistically equated critical reading with simply being critical, as if students’ ability to dissect the text, to criticize it vigorously, was inherently a marker of their ability to understand and appreciate it?

In evaluating the written responses of those first two students, I had privileged mind over emotion and articulateness over inarticulateness in evaluating which of them to be the stronger, more excellent student. This privileging I thought probably excusable, perhaps even desirable in an academic environment, in which we generally and intentionally privilege and cultivate articulateness, but had my assumptions about what constituted excellence really served my class well? Had I been complicit in training them to be articulate in criticism but left them with nothing to say, no sophisticated vocabulary to use, if they actually liked a text and found it rhetorically effective or aesthetically appealing? Had I focused too much on teaching students what to say, particularly what to say negatively about a text, rather than how to approach the text or how to assume a posture towards the text that would reflect Christian humility by a willingness to hear, learn, appreciate, and dialogue? Of course, not just what students are able to read, but how they are able to read matters—not just to their intellectual development, but arguably to their spiritual development as well.6 Surely teaching students a strategy of humble reading that would obviate scornful, haughty textual response would enhance their learning and spiritual growth and not undermine their ability to demonstrate the autonomous critical thinking that my discipline and profession so values and seeks to inculcate in these young scholars.

A Possible Remedy for Scornful Reading

I and my peers in the English department, but certainly our colleagues in other disciplines as well, often include on our syllabi and in discussions of pedagogy the phrases “critical thinking,” “critical reading,” and “critical analysis.” The teacher and course evaluation forms that we ask our students to complete at the end of the semester typically ask students to evaluate how the course developed their skills in these areas. Critical thinking and reading skills we assume to be hallmarks of academic excellence, and we use essay exams, papers, and class discussions to assess whether our students have indeed improved on and developed their abilities to think, read, and write in ways that demonstrate what is thought to be a high level of nuance or of “active processing.”7 This level of intellectual maturity in the literature classroom we generally measure, at least in part, by whether or not a student reads with what we call “a hermeneutics of suspicion,” a concept first advanced by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) but subsequently and frequently misapplied in literature classrooms8 Does that student, we ask, understand how to approach a text with a healthy sense of skepticism, with a sense that what an author says might not always be what that author means, or what that author thinks he or she means might not always be what the text itself reveals?

Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, thought she had written a text that would help to liberate African-American slaves, when, in fact, as scholars and writers such as James Baldwin have pointed out, she instead created, reinforced, and reified certain racial stereotypes that damaged and perhaps continue to damage the African-American community even today.9 In many cases, the students who earn the highest grades and the most praise are those who, when doing a close reading of a work like Stowe’s, use vocabulary such as “this text reveals,” “this text suggests,” or “this text implies,” all phrases that indicate the student’s ability to what some would call “move beyond” a certain kind of unthinking reading to what is perhaps a more cynical, more perspicacious, and more analytical approach. Must the notion of “critical thinking” necessarily entail “suspicion,” “cynicism,” and “obligatory doubt,” however?10 Must “critical thinking” and excellence in the literature classroom be wedded inherently to an approach of distrust? Is it, in fact, Christian excellence or excellence at all if teachers cultivate in their students a hermeneutics of suspicion or, of even more dubious merit, only a hermeneutics of suspicion? Ultimately, I conclude in this essay, Christian literary scholars might better serve their students and their profession by decoupling the notion of critical thinking from that of suspicion and by replacing it with reading strategies that emphasize a posture and attitude of humility as well as deeply analytical dialogue.

The Desirability of Humility

While the virtue of humility certainly has not loomed large in scholarship on teaching literature and the pedagogy of literary studies in general, a number of scholars in other disciplines have commented helpfully on the appropriateness of teaching and modeling humility in the classroom, while acknowledging simultaneously the difficulties of doing so. Historian and humanities scholar Mark R. Schwehn remarks on humility as “both a spiritual excellence and a pedagogical virtue” desirable in a “Christian university,” and in their book The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in American Education, David E. Purpel and William M. McLaurin, Jr. insist that “there is a high correlation between an academic’s intellectual strength and humility … [for] to be humble is not to disregard one’s achievements but to beawed and amazed at the intricacies and complexities of what is being studied.”11 Philosopher Norvin Richards reinforces this notion that being “humble is not a matter of thinking poorly of oneself but … a matter of having oneself in perspective.”12 Church historian, scholar of religion, and administrator Rodney J. Sawatsky notes further that “we are called to humility” and to “undertake our work with a spirit of … humility.”13 Philosopher Shawn D. Floyd posits that “the virtue of humility, although inspired by the Christian moral tradition, is necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) to foster and sustain the practices … [that] are central to democratic education,” and humility will ideally “forestall any behavior that is inimical to goodwill, civility, and mutual respect;” will prevent “contempt for others;” and will “equi[p] us with the motivation to treat others with genuine respect and charity.”14 Finally, Stephen K. Moroney, Matthew P. Phelps, and Scott T. Waalkes, of the fields of theology, psychology, and international politics respectively, remind us that the “cultivation of humility should not be relegated to spiritual practices outside of the normal activities involved in learning an academic subject,” and, whatever our disciplines, the “subjects we teach offer plentiful resources for cultivating humility in our students.” Among the practical pedagogical strategies that they recommend are the use of film, “reinforc[ing] the finitude of human cognition through a study of memory limitations,” providing “some instruction about the noetic effects of sin and how it should engender humility in us,” and, my personal favorite as a literature professor, “assign[ing] novels and narrative nonfiction.”15

While Waalkes may have found that assigning novels engendered humility in his international politics classes, literature faculty themselves have largely neglected to reap the rewards of this pedagogical strategy that is already deeply embedded in much of what they do in their classrooms. Rather than focus on how to teach their own students humble reading, literature faculty have tended to limit their writing about humility to producing scholarship on authors who employ humility topoi in their own writing, who create characters who were demonstrably humble, or who argue for the importance of humility.16 However, their colleagues teaching rhetoric and composition, usually in the same department, have been more prolific in addressing pedagogies of humility. In his book Who Can Afford Critical Consciousness?: Practicing a Pedagogy of Humility, David Seitz advances the importance of what he calls “a disposition of humility,” by which a teacher cultivates a “flexibility … to recognize that students’ learning … often happens beyond the domains” of the teacher’s control and that the teaching goals of a middle-class, white teacher might not, in fact, be helpful or desirable for working-class, minority, or immigrant students.17 His understanding of humility as linked to pedagogies of inclusiveness, liberation, emancipation, empowerment, and resistance are echoed in the writings of other scholars of education such as Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore, for example, or alluded to by Antonia Darder and Paulo Freire, with their advocacy of a pedagogy of love or a pedagogy of indignation or hope, respectively.18 In this essay, however, I focus not on pedagogy of humility as a whole, rather an unwieldy topic for such a short piece, but rather on one strand of pedagogy in the literary classroom. I am interested in how we teach students to read a text, thus my emphasis on strategies for teaching humble reading, rather than on how to write humbly or recognize humility in the writings of others.

Ricoeur Misappropriated

Some of the aforementioned liberatory pedagogies are linked to the thinking of Ricoeur because they, like Ricoeur ’s hermeneutical theories, are part of a move to emphasize reader response, whether in literature, philosophy, or theology. In my introduction, I mentioned my concern that Ricoeur’s phrase “a hermeneutics of suspicion” has detrimentally overtaken the literature classroom, and now I would like to clarify that point a bit further because I do not believe that Ricouer ’s philosophy is the real problem here, but rather how his phrase has been misappropriated or misapplied to certain modes of thinking and teaching in the literature classroom. My concern, then, is not with what Ricoeur himself wrote, but rather with the specter of Ricoeur and the phantom of his work in the pedagogies of the literature classroom. Professor of rhetoric and composition C. Jan Swearingen, for example, cites Ricoeur as she laments how the “hermeneutics of suspicion dominates academic models of textual analysis and interpretation” with its “practices of skepticism, debate, and negative dialectic” and how “[a]cademic theorists have become dogmatically anarchic in their practices of skepticism.” She worries that the “hermeneutics of suspicion, the habit of interpretive skepticism that questions any apparent or received meaning as possibly and even probably illusory” focuses our students on doubt rather than belief, the individual rather than the collective, and men’s “ways of knowing” rather than “women’s ways of knowing,” which, she cites other studies in asserting, emphasize narrative and emotional contexts rather than “rational inquiry.” Thus she sees Ricoeur’s hermeneutic as bound up in restriction, rather than liberation, that is incompatible with or downright “hostile” to belief of many types. To counter this hermeneutic, Swearingen recommends a hermeneutic of belief and a dialogical model of pedagogy that defines valuable ways of knowing more expansively and inclusively and that provides “alternatives and complements to skepticism, analytic dialectic, and doctrines of linguistic contingency.”19 Interestingly, Karen Carlton finds such a model by turning to a monastic model of learning, which she opposes to a scholastic model of learning, for ways to encourage her students to value “sincerity and humility over pride,” as part of cultivating “a knowledge of self and a knowledge of God,” as well as a “spiritual intelligence, based on the belief that love itself is knowledge.”20 David Lyon, on the other hand, recommends that scholars look to Scott Lash’s “hermeneutics of retrieval,” which draws on the thinking of Dick Hebdige and Jürgen Habermas, to, among other things, “focus on otherness.” Redirecting our attention from ourselves and those like us to focus instead on others and otherness “can operate alongside of the hermeneutics of suspicion, allowing us, through dialogue… to speak to real concerns of people in their daily lives, now irrevocably bound up with global conditions.”21 Thus he, like these other scholars, implies that Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion can only be helpful in a dialogical and humble model of reading when paired with a hermeneutic provided by other philosophers or sociologists.

Recovering Ricoeur

Other scholars, though, have turned to Ricoeur himself for such alternative models, asserting that not only is Ricoeur not to blame for an overemphasis on a hermeneutics of suspicion in the classroom, but that his work offers a corrective to this very problem. Psychologist Michael Mangis argues, for example, that a hermeneutics of suspicion “is suspicious in the positive sense of holding any ‘knower ’s’ interpretation of reality to a standard of careful evaluation for accuracy,” and the “subjectivity of the individual is accepted and unconscious motivations to perceive reality with an individual bias are merely assumed.” “This,” he asserts, is a “method of humility and suspicion … appropriate for the Christian.”22 Rather than following Mangis’ lead in attempting to recuperate a hermeneutics of suspicion as particularly positive, psychologist Ruthellen Josselson points out that “Ricoeur distinguishes between two forms of hermeneutics: a hermeneutic of faith which aims to restore meaning to a text and a hermeneutic of suspicion which attempts to decode meanings that are disguised” and “speaks of the possibility that hermeneutics can be animated by both the willingness to listen and the willingness to suspect.” She employs both hermeneutics in her “narrative research,” the former to help give accurate and authentic voice to a narrator ’s perspective, the latter to aid in interpreting any meanings that might surface beyond what the narrator himself or herself is able to provide. She emphasizes in particular that the hermeneutics of faith, or a “hermeneutics of restoration,” “aims at the restoration of …meaning” and is “characterized by a willingness to listen, to absorb as much as possible the message in its given form,” with respect for “the symbol, understood as a cultural mechanism for our apprehension of reality, as a place of revelation.”23 This emphasis on restoring meaning, on listening, and on respect for narrator seems illustrative of the qualities a strategy of humble reading should demonstrate. Rightly, she posits the proper order of interpretation—first restoring, then decoding. If we read humbly, with charity and love, we begin our reading by granting that the narrator, more than ourselves, “is the expert on his or her own experience” and “believes [even if wrongly] what he or she says.”24 We presume a certain degree of authority and even wisdom on the part of an author or narrator.25

For instance, even Edgar Allan Poe’s notoriously unreliable narrators give readers expert witness to what happened during the strange occurrences that usually surround them, and granting these unreliable narrators more trust than they merit generally does not undermine readers’ ability to see that there is more meaning to these occurrences than the narrators themselves are able to interpret. Josselson, then, is right to emphasize that a hermeneutic of faith does not undermine, but even supports the idea that meanings can be “implicit” and can “lie ‘deeper ’ than the symbolization apparent on the surface.” A hermeneutic of suspicion, or what she labels the “hermeneutics of demystification,” is not necessary for the recuperation of these implicit meanings, but rather for interpretation that points to “distorted” meanings or “forms of self-deception” that may elude the narrator because these meanings are not available to his “conscious experience.”26 Reading Poe with both hermeneutics in play allows us to see truly and perhaps even sympathetically, for example, the narrator’s real sense of woundedness in “The Cask of Amontillado,” while suspecting that this sense is irrational, unfounded, and perhaps insane, given the action that follows—his cruel deed of imprisoning and essentially burying his enemy alive. Josselson recommends that rather than respond to distorted meaning by insisting on challenging and disproving it, we instead “turn our attention elsewhere.”27 When applied to Poe’s work, this might mean guiding students briefly into making the observation that Poe’s narrator is unreliable, an important and necessary concept for them to grasp, but then drawing them into more sophisticated readings that ask why Poe would create such a narrator, what effect he presumably hoped to achieve by this, and what this potentially suggests about his work’s arguments about the veracity of the senses, perspective, and human nature.

We can also find among the work of theologians and scholars of religion a helpful recuperation of Ricoeur that seldom has reached literature classrooms but that would aid in the construction and teaching of humble reading strategies. Theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer finds in Ricoeur a strategy of theological hermeneutics, or what he labels a “hermeneutics of humility,” that calls for not only the Bible being read and interpreted “like any other book” but also every other book being read and interpreted like the Bible. This would entail practicing a model of narrative interpretation like that of Josselson that would employ a “Principle of Charity” to “interpret in such a way so as the bulk of the speaker’s sentences can be considered true.”28 Thus, when Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana claims in his nineteenth-century letters to his wife during his military campaign in Mexico that he has never looked with lust at Mexican women, we grant him the benefit of the doubt, assume he is trying to reassure his wife and allay any worries that she might have, and not conclude automatically and initially that his declaration of innocence must surely betray his sexual exploits.29 If the text offers repeated references to lustful voyeurism or tropes of leering vision or desire, satisfied or unsatisfied, then we might employ a hermeneutic of suspicion to interrogate what Dana might not be saying or the implications of his suggestive silences, but we do not need to start at that point. When we “consciously … accent[t] the good of others,” Richard Foster contends, we are the beneficiaries of such humility and see positive transformation in ourselves.30 We benefit from reading Dana with humility. Indeed, employing a “[t]rue hermeneutic humility” allows us “to receive something from the other, from the text, and from other interpreters.”31 A scholar of religion, Erin White, notes similarly that in Ricoeur we can find a hermeneutic helpfully able to “step between” or navigate a “position midway between scepticism [sic] and credulity.”32 Ricoeur himself challenges us to “struggle in ourselves not only with suspicion … but also with the affirmation.”33 White views Ricoeur as recommending both “suspicion and hope,” a “hope which affirms the life-giving power of symbols … matched by a suspicion which exposes the false consciousness they conceal.”34 Thus we humbly approach Dana’s text in eager anticipation and with confidence that we can, in fact, glean important truth from it, while at the same time remaining aware of the human limitations that prevent this and any narrator from understanding the full implications of what he or she writes and reveals.

Therefore Ricoeur aids us in, rather than hinders us from, implementing my proposal to decouple the notion of critical thinking strictly from that of suspicion and to replace it with reading strategies that inculcate in students a posture and attitude of humility as well as the ability to engage in deeply analytical dialogue. Ricoeur, writes G. D. Robinson, keeps us “grounded in some way in the text” but simultaneously asks us “to remain ‘open’ to what the text may have to say.”35 Reading, Ricoeur himself notes, is “animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen.”36 He promotes listening to a text and to ourselves, deliberately attempting to unmask the prejudices that we ourselves bring to and impose upon a text. Clearly he promotes listening as a part of discourse and dialectic, and listening is one of the fruits of humility that I most want to bring into our classrooms. We do not need to be concerned that if students read Ricoeur they will become unproductively critical. In fact, they are more likely to become careful and compassionate critical thinkers after reading Ricoeur. They will be discerning readers, rather than scornfully suspicious readers.37 Ricoeur himself offers the answer to Nathan P. Gilmour ’s concern that a hermeneutics of suspicion is “a fairly common way of reading texts in university literature classes, and under its banner, the art of literary criticism (or at least sectors of it) has become a game in which the critic proves her or his superiority to the author at hand. The critic is not as misogynistic as Milton, not as self-deluded as Wordsworth, not as imperialistic as Dante.”38 This misapplied or exaggerated notion of suspicion indeed exacerbates in the reading practices of my students in my own field of colonial American literature the habit of assuming superiority to the subject matter and to the author at hand as this material is generally at first seemingly so distant, so disembodied, so very far from the lived experiences of the students themselves.

How easy it is, for instance, for students to suggest that seventeenth-century Puritan author Mary Rowlandson must be condemned for, as one of my students said, “wrenching Scripture out of its appropriate context and misapplying it to her situation as captive among the Wampanoags” during King Philip’s War. In retaliation for earlier atrocities that white New Englanders had waged against their own people, the Wampanoags’ Narragansett allies had attacked Rowlandson’s home, brutally slaughtered many of her friends and family members, killed her “babe,” and, for the purposes of securing ransom money, had captured her and her surviving children, from whom she was summarily separated. Her situation as she describes it in her then very popular captivity narrative is seemingly quite far removed from my students’ lives, and they comment that her sympathetic but at the same time patronizing and sometimes even venomous attitude toward her Wampanoag captors seems so unlike their own enlightened use of Scripture or their embracing attitudes towards native populations. Part of my job, then, is to provide enough historical and literary contextualization and education about these texts to collapse at least some of the distance the students experience while reading Rowlandson and to demonstrate for them how close they as contemporary readers might actually be to the experiences Rowlandson recounts. I try to avoid creating a false sense of familiarity with the material that relies on an emotional bond to the text or that dishonestly erases the very real differences between colonial life and ours, but rather aim to teach students to approach the text in humility, and with questions, rather than with answers and assumptions. If, as scholar of education Alan A. Block claims, humility “is the acknowledgment of how much we do not know,” “the acknowledgment that one does not have the answer,” and “the acknowledgment of an Other whose answers satisfy us,” then asking questions of a text and an author seems the most appropriate response to puzzlingly difficult, self-condemning passages in a work of literature.39 “Humility … creates a space in which the other can speak” and it “allows us to pay attention to ‘the other,’” notes Parker Palmer.40 Hence we should ask of a work of literature how that author might have thought it desirable to present himself in the particular way that he did.

For example, I encourage my students to ask, “How does the language that Rowlandson employs look like or unlike the language that we read in our newspapers or hear on the news to describe fear of terrorism in the United States or abroad?”Clearly Rowlandson thought of the Wampanoags and Narragansetts as outsiders impinging on and sometimes terrorizing her own community, not unlike the ways in which many Americans conceptualize themselves in relation to Muslims.41 Or, alternatively, they might ask how Rowlandson’s scriptural response to difficult situations helps her or hinders her from dealing with cultural and religious difference. This, I posit, is a more productive approach to the text than charging Rowlandson with gross misuse of Scripture, which may be true and accurate, but does little to encourage students to think carefully about their own uses of Scripture as a tool of legitimization, whether positive or negative. As Patricia Armstrong, Sonja Moyer, and Katherine Stanton explain, “by encouraging our students to adopt a critical framework, we prepare them not only to engage in scholarly conversation and debate in our disciplines, but also to be engaged citizens in a democratic society.”42 Floyd agrees, but suggests that humility itself “can actually promote successful participation in those practices deemed central to democratic education” and the preparation of good citizens.43 I am not, then, abandoning the idea of teaching my students to think, read, and analyze critically, and, in fact, I think these skills are necessary for them to learn, as these scholars indicate, in order to be good citizens, but being a critical thinker and being critical are not synonymous. Teaching students how to ask productive and provocative questions is more important, I believe, than rewarding them for dismantling a text dexterously. They can still unmask untruth and rigorously “distinguish the true sense from the apparent sense,” as Ricoeur would promote, but they should be encouraged to do so through the more humble posture of asking than through bold proclamations.44 As Jacobs recommends, students can benefit from “charitable” reading, which is attentive reading that emphasizes the text as a gift given to students from which they can receive wisdom and with which they can reciprocate gifting by offering criticism or commentary on the text to other readers or to the author herself.45

Of course, simply teaching students to use a less confrontational or self-assertive vocabulary in their criticism and commentary does not guarantee humility, and I recommend to students not mere posturing, but rather the posture of humility, whereby I mean the attitude of humility or close positioning of their bodies in front of their open texts so as to read them more carefully and refer to them often.46 As Benjamin Franklin explains wryly in his Autobiography, in which he recounts his “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection,” which he hopes will culminate in his achieving “Humility” through “imitat[ing] Jesus and Socrates, ”he can not “boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but [he] had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.” By adopting vocabulary such as “I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine,” as opposed to using language reflecting a “fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, &c.,” he was able to gain “a readier Reception and less Contradiction” when he proposed his ideas to others.47 True humility extends deeper than vocabulary, deeper than rhetorical strategies designed to ingratiate one’s ideas to others or secure their good will, though learning a more hospitable vocabulary and being sensitive to others’ opinions surely offer a good starting point for developing humility.

Fostering Humility Through Homework Assignments and Classroom Practices

To that end, in some of my classes I have abandoned—at least temporarily—the traditional “response paper” assignment to assign instead what I call an IRA,or “an interrogative reading assignment.”48 This assignment requires students to pose at least one question of the text that they read for that day. I evaluate the question as satisfactory or unsatisfactory in terms of the complexity of responses that it can generate and whether it can facilitate class discussion. So, for example, a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” is not satisfactory. In most cases, once students become comfortable with this format, they begin listing many questions, not just one, and they begin to offer several tentative answers to their own questions. Thus the questions turn into dialogue. The assignment calls for a minimum of four typed lines, but, usually by mid-semester, students are writing three-fourths of a page to full-page responses, sometimes more, which I consider a success, particularly considering that these short response papers are not a significant component of their overall grade, though they tend to improve class participation, which is a significant component of their overall grade.

In an early American literature survey course that I taught this past fall, I asked students to write IRAs in response to their reading of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Two students noted in their IRAs for the same class period that Twain had created Huck to be a protagonist, even a hero one might argue, who is a flagrant liar. Assuming a posture of humble and analytical queryrather than of instant and unreflective dogmatic interpretation, these students identified a puzzling and potentially problematic element in the text and then sought to sort through what it might mean, generously granting Twain more significant intention than simply trying to corrupt the morals of his readers. One of these students asked in her assignment, “Does Twain use Huck Finn to justify lying?” She cited a relevant quote from the text and then began to explore briefly why Huck perceived the consequences of lying and truth-telling to be comparable. The other student also cited a pertinent quote from the text and pondered whether Huck might be an unreliable narrator because of youth and naivety, unaware that the adults around him could see through his relatively transparent lies. She meditated on how she had lied compulsively as a child, at the time believing herself to be extremely clever but now quite sure that adults had known her to be lying. The first student’s comments opened a path for class discussion regarding Twain’s useof the picaresque style and his place among Realist writers, his post-Civil War disillusionment, and, most importantly, his satirical critique of race relations and morality in the period of Reconstruction. The second student’s remarks, based on her ability to make personal connections between the text and her own life, sympathetically identified Twain’s portrayal of a young boy on the cusp of adulthood as authentic and admirably realistic, without requiring her to label the protagonist as a character to be imitated.

In both cases, beginning with a question rather than with an answer helped these students, and the classmates who benefited from their comments, to avoid quickly dismissing Twain as an immoral author with little to offer Christian readers. Approaching the text with the charitable intent of listening to and receiving from the author, as Jacobs would advise, challenged them to explore difficult questions regarding Christian hypocrisy, one of Twain’s targets in this book, as well as to consider moral issues not easily answered by Christian platitudes. The students’ IRAs quickly put them in dialogue with their peers, who had come to admire the character of Huck more readily and needed to be challenged as to why they could admire a liar and aided them in engaging with the secondary criticism at the back of our Norton Critical edition of Huck Finn. Some of this criticism described the book as morally questionable because of its protagonist’s lying and stealing or because of its depictions of African-Americans and thus deemed it worthy of censorship, while others excused the morally questionable qualities of the protagonist for a variety of reasons and proclaimed the book the greatest novel ever produced by an American. A posture of humility that considered Twain’s possible intentions, students’ own situatedness in relation to the book, and the multiplicity of interpretations available in response to this provocative text ultimately helped the students to engage in conversation across and beyond the boundaries of the classroom in a positive and critically analytical way. They began and then were poised to continue discussing in their home communities the value or limitations of this book but hopefully now with greater sensitivity as to how it might be offensive to the sensibilities of certain religious or racial groups and be able to respond more generously, in support or critique of the book, to those whose opinions differed from their own.

In an attempt to model and train students in this interrogative posture of learning, this interrogative rather than imperative approach, I regularly incorporate, as in the previously mentioned instance, some of the students’ questions into my class lectures and discussions, valorizing their questions, and identifying the authors of the questions by name, to suggest the importance of learning a vocabulary of query, just as much as a vocabulary of criticism. I am also currently trying to be much more intentional about training students in a positive vocabulary so that if they do indeed want to praise a text for its efficacy or power, they know how to speak and write about what it does well, whether its compelling use of metaphor, its richly varied and sophisticated diction, or its subtle cultivation of more than one narrative voice in the text. Then, when a student reports that he or she has “connected” with a text, I can ask why and in what ways to access a fuller, more nuanced analysis. Asking questions and offering instruction on how to be positive about a text is certainly not innovative pedagogy, but perhaps it is an important recovery of an element of pedagogy that has been lost or become too obscure in many classrooms. We need this pedagogy that assumes that humbly asking questions or praising something is, in fact, potentially just as reflective of critical thinking and reading skills as is a more aggressive, merely critical approach.

By recommending that students focus more on positive than negative response, I am certainly not advocating that we abandon a pedagogy that stresses the need for scholars, especially Christian scholars, to be an overtly prophetic or countercultural voice when necessary. As historian David L. Weaver-Zercher notes, there is indeed an important place for peaceful resistance, for negativity of a kind, for an essential counter narrative, within the Christian community.49 If we do not speak out against injustice when we find it, surely we are failing in our calling to “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.”50 Humility is only one third of that calling and does not preclude the other two emphases on justice and mercy. In fact, argue Purpel and McLaurin, “It is arrogance that leads to stillness and silence (and vice versa), and humility that leads to agitation and response,” as it calls us “to protest, to stir, to excite, and to act.”51 This humility, as noted earlier in this essay, seeks to liberate rather than restrict, and, through its emphasis on listening and dialogue, alerts us as to whom we can work beside and ally with in the work of liberation and reconciliation.

At my own current academic home, Messiah College, certainly we talk about and write into the college’s governing documents the interrelatedness of justice, mercy, and humility as three components of Christian vocation. The Wesleyan, Pietist, and Anabaptist traditions that were a part of the school’s Brethren in Christ heritage historically did and currently continue to emphasize the importance of justice-seeking, peacemaking, and reconciliation, and Messiah’s faculty explicitly, as expressed in the school’s college-wide educational objectives, are enjoined to “instill in … students a sense of intellectual humility, recognizing that even the most learned persons have limited insight and therefore need the insights of others.”52 This intellectual humility, now articulated at the college as being part of cultivating a campus-wide “ethos of intellectual hospitality” or “inclusive conversation,” as President Kim Phipps calls it, should be exemplified and modeled not just in our relationships to the community members, whether academics or otherwise, who visit our campus, but also within our classrooms.53 As Stephen K.Moroney, Matthew P. Phelps, and Scott T. Waalkes of Malone University assert, encouraging humility in our students helps them to welcome outsiders into the classroom, and this hospitality aids them in seeing God’s image in others, “not interpret[ing] others’ lives arrogantly,” and thereby reflecting the image of God themselves.54 Thus, I aim to inculcate in my students a sense of humility, within the context of intellectual hospitality, which extends not only to each other as they discuss the text, but also to the text itself and to its authors, who are indeed part of the academic community and dialogue into which I am introducing and initiating these students. If we conceive of the literature classroom as consisting of a series of relationships between students, between faculty and students, between students and the text, and between students and the larger academic community, certainly assuming a posture and attitude of humility and fostering intellectual hospitality and dialogue will make for better, more effective learning for all involved.55

Cite this article
Heidi Oberholtzer Lee, “Critical Thinking or Just Critical?: Reintroducing Humility to the Literature Classroom”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 421-437


  1. Rita Felski, “After Suspicion,” Profession (2009): 33-4.
  2. Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001),1.
  3. Edward Taylor, “Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children,” eds. Wayne Franklin, Philip F.Gura, and Arnold Krupat, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed. Vol. A, NinaBaym, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 284.
  4. Patricia Armstrong, Sonja Moyer, and Katherine Stanton, “IDEA Learning Objective #11:‘Learning to Analyze and Critically Evaluate Ideas, Arguments, and Points of View,’” POD-IDEA Center Learning Notes, Michael Theall, ed. (N.p.: The IDEA Center, 2006), 1.
  5. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York:HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 66.
  6. See, for example, David I. Smith and John Shortt, “Introduction: Reading, Spiritual Engage-ment, and the Shape of Teaching,” in “Teaching Spiritually Engaged Reading,” eds. David I.Smith, John Shortt, and John Sullivan, The Journal of Education and Christian Belief 11.2 (Au-tumn 2007): 5-7.
  7. Armstrong, Moyer, and Stanton, 1.
  8. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (NewHaven: Yale University Press, 1970), 30.
  9. James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, Angelyn Mitchell, ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 149-155.
  10. C. Jan Swearingen, “Doubting and Believing: The Hermeneutics of Suspicion in Contextsof Faith,” The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning: JAEPL 3 (Winter1997-1998): 13.
  11. Mark R. Schwehn, “A Christian University: Defining the Difference,” First Things 93 (1999):28, and David E. Purpel and William M. McLaurin, Jr., Reflections on the Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education, Counterpoints: Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education, eds. JoeL. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg, vol. 262 (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 64.
  12. Norvin Richards, Humility (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), xii.
  13. Rodney J. Sawatsky, “Prologue: The Virtue of Scholarly Hope,” in Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation, eds. Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 11.
  14. Shawn D. Floyd, “Could Humility Be a Deliberative Virtue?” in The Schooled Heart: Moral Formation in American Higher Education, eds. Michael D. Beaty and Douglas V. Henry, Studiesin Religion and Higher Education, vol. 4 (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 156, 165,167.
  15. Stephen K. Moroney, Matthew P. Phelps, and Scott T. Waalkes, “Cultivating Humility: Teaching Practices Rooted in Christian Anthropology,” in The Schooled Heart: Moral Formation inAmerican Higher Education, 173, 182-4, 187; italics in the original.
  16. See, for example, Martha Satz, “An Epistemological Understanding of Pride and Prejudice: Humility and Objectivity,” in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, Women and Literature, Janet Todd, ed., vol. 3 (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1983), 171-86; Derek Krueger, “Hagiography as Asceticism: Humility as Authorial Practice,” in Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East (Philadelphia: University of PennsylvaniaPress, 2004), 94-109; and Julius Schwietering, “The Origins of the Medieval Humility Formula,” PMLA 69 (Dec. 1954): 1279-1291. Similar emphasis on authorial humility, especially the rhetoric of humility, appears in the writings of Jeredith Merrin on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop; Eileen Margerum and Kenneth R. Ball on Anne Bradstreet; Domenico Pietropaolo on Dante; Robert Daly on Phillis Wheatley; Robert S. Rudder on Santa Teresa; Victor P. H. Li on T. S. Eliot; and Wayne Erickson on Spenser, for instance.
  17. David Seitz, Who Can Afford Critical Consciousness?: Practicing a Pedagogy of Humility (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2004), xi-xii.
  18. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore, eds., Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy (New York: Routledge,1992); Antonia Darder, Reinventing Paulo Freire: A Pedagogy of Love (Boulder, CO: WestviewPress, 2002); and Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Indignation (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).
  19. C. Jan Swearingen, “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion and Other Doubting Games: Reclaiming Belief in the Writing of Reading and the Reading of Writing,” in Ethical Issues in College Writing, eds. Fredric G. Gale, Phillip Sipiora, and James L. Kinneavy, Studies in Compositionand Rhetoric, vol. 1 (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 156-61.
  20. Karen Carlton and Chalon Emmons, “Every Moment Meditation: Teaching English as Spiri-tual Work,” in The Academy and the Possibility of Belief: Essays on Intellectual and Spiritual Life,eds. Mary Louise Buley-Meissner, Mary McCaslin Thompson, and Elizabeth Bachrach Tan (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000), 21. The virtue of humility appears regularly in writings about monastic hermeneutics. See, for instance, Krueger, “Hagiography as Asceticism,” 94-109.
  21. David Lyon, “Sliding in All Directions? Social Hermeneutics from Suspicion to Retrieval,” in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective, Roger Lundin, ed. (GrandRapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 111, 114-5.
  22. Michael W. Mangis, “An Alien Horizon: The Psychoanalytic Contribution to a Christian Hermeneutic of Humility and Confidence,” Christian Scholar’s Review 28.3 (Spring 1999): 411.
  23. Ruthellen Josselson, “The Hermeneutics of Faith and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Nar-rative Inquiry 14.1 (2004): 1, 3-4, 23, and Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 27-8; italics in the original.
  24. Josselson, “The Hermeneutics of Faith,” 5, 23.
  25. Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1993), 48.
  26. Josselson, 3-5, 13-4, and Ricoeur, 27.
  27. Josselson, 15.
  28. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Spirit of Understanding: Special Revelation and General Herme-neutics,” in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective, Roger Lundin,ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 132, 139, 149, 159.
  29. Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana, Monterrey Is Ours!: The Mexican War Letters of Lieutenant Dana 1845-1847, Robert H. Ferrell, ed. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990).
  30. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 130.
  31. Vanhoozer, 159.
  32. Erin White, “Between Suspicion and Hope: Paul Ricoeur’s Vital Hermeneutic,” Journal ofLiterature and Theology 5.3 (Nov. 1991): 311.
  33. Paul Ricoeur, “The Critique of Religion,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 217.
  34. White, 320.
  35. G. D. Robinson, “Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion: A Brief Overview and Critique,” Premise 2.8 (1995): 12.
  36. Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 27.
  37. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 88.
  38. Nathan P. Gilmour, “Suspicion and Sisterhood: A Brief Theoretical Meditation,” Theooze: Conversation for the Journey (April 6, 2006), 1, < (Accessed October 5, 2007).
  39. Alan A. Block, Pedagogy, Religion, and Practice: Reflections on Ethics and Teaching (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 182-3.
  40. Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 108-9.
  41. See online discussion of the Society of Early Americanists listserv in the several weeks afterthe publication of Susan Faludi, “America’s Guardian Myths,” The New York Times, 7 Sept.2007, (AccessedJune 18, 2009), as well as the article by Faludi herself.
  42. Armstrong, Moyer, and Stanton, 1.
  43. Floyd, “Could Humility Be a Deliberative Virtue?” 165.
  44. Ricoeur, “The Critique of Religion,” 215.
  45. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, 87, 89. See also Alan Jacobs, “On Charitable Teaching,” in “Teaching Spiritually Engaged Reading,” eds. David I. Smith, John Shortt, and John Sullivan, The Journal of Education and Christian Belief 11.2 (Autumn 2007): 17, 19.
  46. Moroney, Phelps, and Waalkes note that humility requires a “kinesthetic” and “proper posture—a dependent, subordinate posture—under God, others, and the world.” Moroney, Phelps, and Waalkes, “Cultivating Humility,” 177.
  47. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York: The Modern Library,1981), 103, 105, 114-115; italics in the original.
  48. This is a modification of an assignment that I adopted from John Staud of the University ofNotre Dame.
  49. David L. Weaver-Zercher, “A Modest (Though Not Particularly Humble) Claim for Scholarship in the Anabaptist Tradition,” Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation, 103-17.
  50. Micah 6:8.
  51. Purpel and McLaurin, 66.
  52. Messiah College Board of Trustees, “College-wide Educational Objectives,” Community of Educators Handbook, Section 1.3, Revised 15 May 2003.
  53. Kim S. Phipps, “Epilogue: Campus Climate and Christian Scholarship,” Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation, 171-83.
  54. Moroney, Phelps, and Waalkes, “Cultivating Humility,” 175-6.
  55. I presented an earlier version of this essay at the panel titled “Justice, Humility, and Reading Practices” at the “Reimagining Educational Excellence” conference hosted and sponsored by the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, in October of 2007. I thank all who attended that panel and conference and contributed to this paper through insightful questions, suggestions, and encouragement. I am also grateful to Messiah College for having provided me with a travel grant to attend that conference and then a scholarship grant to support additional work on this essay. I thank, too, the two anonymous reviewers whose insightful comments helped me to revise this article, as well as the students in my literature classes, particularly Gillian Smith and Sarah Thow, who gave me permission to reference their homework assignments in this article.

Heidi Oberholtzer Lee

Messiah University
Heidi Oberholtzer Lee is Assistant Professor of English at Messiah College.