What Is Humility?

In The Wind in the Willows, the good friends Mole and Rat discover Mole’s old house in the middle of the woods one night. Upon excitedly showing his friend the house, Mole then grows downcast at its disrepair: “He saw the dust lying thick on everything, saw the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meagre dimensions, its worn and shabby contents—and collapsed again on a hall-chair, his nose to his paws. ‘O Ratty!’ he cried dismally, ‘why ever did I do it? Why did I bring you to this poor, cold little place, on a night like this, when you might have been at River Bank by this time, toasting your toes before a blazing fire, with all your own nice things about you!” (120). But Rat refuses to indulge Mole’s self-pity, pointing out the good things still present in the house. After foraging for a bit, Rat discovers plenty of food: “a tin of sardines—a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full—and a German sausage encased in silver paper. ‘There’s a banquet for you!’ observed the Rat, as he arranged the table. ‘I know some animals who would give their ears to be sitting down to supper with us to-night!’ ‘No bread!’ groaned the Mole dolorously; ‘no butter, no—’ ‘No pate de foie gras, no champagne!’ continued the Rat, grinning. ‘And that reminds me—what’s that little door at the end of the passage? Your cellar, of course! Every luxury in this house! Just you wait a minute” (121).

While Mole at first appears to be thinking too little of his home, the truth of the matter is that his pride is wounded. Wanting to impress his friend with grand hospitality, Mole wilts upon realizing that his humble home does not compare to his opulent memories. Only with Rat’s perspective and encouragement is Mole eventually able to host his friend (and others later on). By candidly acknowledging the truth of the situation and swallowing his pride, Mole is able to show hospitality and friendship to his fellow creatures; for humility, like all the virtues, often begets many others.

Humility is the virtue of putting others before yourself.

Students at school quickly encounter the reality that not every child is alike. Some children might finish an assignment before their classmates, while others might be able to run faster than the rest at recess. In classes like P.E. and Chess in particular, students learn about the virtue of sportsmanship. Not coming first in a competition or a game is tough for anyone, and at school students have many opportunities to learn how to respond to disappointment with resilience. On the other hand, students also must learn the importance of not boasting about their achievements when they do perform well. Both extremes can only be balanced by the virtue of humility, which is an accurate understanding of one’s worth. Humility is crucial to everything from sportsmanship to magnanimity. As students grow in their understanding of what it means to be humble, they begin to instinctively show kindness to their teammates during games and to take due pride in their accomplishments regardless of whether they finished before or after their classmates. We celebrate our students’ hard work with them, helping them to see that true humility is not an artificial lessening of oneself—that would be false humility. On the contrary, humility is rooted in an accurate estimation of one’s own inestimable value, but also everyone else’s, as unique individuals living in relationship with the rest of the community.

Examples of Humility from the Great Hearts Curriculum

In Kindergarten, students read A New Coat for Anna, in which a young girl living in the wake of World War II needs a new winter coat. Anna’s mother proceeds to work with the townspeople to acquire all of the necessary materials to make the coat, humbly trading what she can spare in order to get her daughter a fine new coat. Anna learns the value of humility in a community, as her mother’s steadfast pursuit and celebration of the new coat ends up connecting Anna’s family even more closely with others in her town.

Our Second Grade students learn about humility through the example of Wilbur the pig. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur is not only explicitly named “Humble” by his friend, he also demonstrates this virtue in his actions, attitude, and response to Charlotte, Fern, and his other friends. In Wilbur, students learn that humility is not an artificial lowering of one’s self-image, but rather a properly balanced one. Even someone who is famous can, and ought to be, humble.

In Fifth Grade, students read The Silver Chair, one of our Classics to Keep. Eustace and Jane journey with Puddleglum, their humble companion. Throughout their journey, Puddleglum consistently demonstrates humility in his approach to what he does and does not know, all the while doing his best to keep the group on the right path. Puddleglum ends up being a hero of the story in large part because of how rooted he is in a humble and accurate view of himself, his friends, and their response to the world around them.

Core Virtues