ELITE educational institutions across the world pride themselves on admitting and nurturing top talent. It is of course important to celebrate the incredible achievements and potential of their students. At the same time, this sense of pride often encourages such institutes to commit a grave educational error that may lead to a lack of humility. The same lack of humility could often lead to what organisational psychologist Adam Grant terms “overconfidence cycles”: individuals believing that they already have the required expertise, which prevents them from learning more going forward.
A typical orientation week in any elite institute often involves informing the students that they should be proud of their achievements. These institutes then never fail to repeat this theme constantly throughout the time the student is there.
This approach leads to two challenges: one ethical and one related to the professional excellence of alumni.
Starting with the first challenge, if students are constantly told that they are the best, they are likely to internalise this praise and believe that they are better than other citizens. This lack of humility or implicit arrogance towards others works against building an egalitarian society. Internalising external praise is also unconvincing where the reality of success, which remains largely a function of structural factors and privilege that no one has control over, is concerned. Of course, hard work as a value is important to inculcate in any healthy professional culture. However, holding worldly success to be attributable to oneself alone has always been philosophically contentious.
Elite institutions must ask themselves if they are also nurturing arrogance.
The second concern is that being constantly told that you are the ‘best’ increases the probability of the students believing that they know everything. Now imagine a scenario where an alumnus from a top institute begins a job and already thinks he/she knows everything. This could prevent the same individual from constantly seeking out guidance and information to improve his/her performance on the job. Such overconfidence can eventually promote a culture of complacency.
This overconfidence is closely related to a well-documented bias in psychology literature — the Dunning-Kruger effect where individuals with low expertise in a particular field vastly overestimate their ability. A simple example could help illustrate this phenomenon. Have you ever watched a game of cricket on TV and happily criticised every decision of the captain, coaches, and team management with an incredible amount of confidence (and if you are like myself, with very little expertise in cricket)? Well, that’s the Dunning-Kruger effect at play. This isn’t to say that the team may not have made strategic errors during the game. It’s just to say that the armchair critic with no expertise in the sport isn’t best placed to critique with such confidence.
I understand that elite educational institutes want to celebrate the achievements of their students to build their confidence. They want to stir the incredible passion in their students so that they can go out into the real world and bring change. But in the process of doing so, elite institutions must ask themselves whether they are also encouraging arrogance and cycles of overconfidence that close off their students to treat learning as a lifelong objective.
A much better approach would be for such institutes to acknowledge the achievement of their students while also highlighting the role of huge structural factors outside the control of their students that likely played an important role in this success — factors such as access to good education, an enabling environment at home, and so on. These institutes could then highlight that however much you think you know, there are always more mysteries in this world to solve and more to know. They could mention that a two-, four-, or six-year stint at any educational institute could potentially encourage the students to embark on a lifelong journey to know more. But the knowledge that the institute will provide will likely just be a drop in the ocean.
Personally, the people who’ve really inspired me professionally have had a combination of two important traits. The first is professional excellence fuelled by hard work and dedication to an important cause. The second, and perhaps the more important trait, is a grounded humility that motivates their constant desire to learn.
If elite institutes could equally prioritise teaching humility as they do hard work, we would not only have better professionals, but also better, more level-headed individuals.
The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2022