Questioning Cultural Humility

Elizabeth Corey

Winter 2021

The phrase "cultural humility" has recently joined the pantheon of important terms for those who work in universities. Like diversity, inclusion, equity, and intersectionality, cultural humility is part of a social-justice agenda grounded in critical theory. Some people recognize this, but others do not; for many people, it is simply in the air they breathe. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1867:

[W]e seldom think of asking the meaning of what we see every day, so when our ears are used to the sound of a word or a phrase, we do not suspect that it conveys no clear idea to our minds, and that we should have the utmost difficulty in defining it, or expressing, in any other words, what we think we understand by it.

In the case of cultural humility, an entire social movement is hidden in two words. Yet the language is innocuous; we see "humility" as a virtue and "cultural" as a harmless modifier, so we’re not inclined to ask what the phrase really means. Indeed, it almost seems impolite to wonder about it. Who could really be against humility? Do we want prideful and haughty people working in our universities — people whose aims are to shame students for their ignorance, their lack of culture?

The reality is not so simple. We can’t understand "cultural humility" until we grasp the meaning of both words, individually and in combination. "Cultural" here is not an innocuous modifier, but rather implies a revolutionary agenda à la Antonio Gramsci’s "cultural hegemony." And "humility" isn’t just downplaying one’s own interest or deferring graciously to others, but a rejection of objective criteria of judgment and "epistemological privilege." This kind of humility assumes that all people and cultures are equally flawed, that there can be no evaluation of better and worse. It also requires a radical egalitarianism in the college classroom: Students must be free to tell their own stories, and professors must emphasize not the capaciousness, but the limits of their knowledge. Those in authority are even encouraged to highlight their failures so that others do not feel intimidated.

Cultural humility would not be so problematic if it were merely the case that individual instructors wished to proceed this way in their classrooms, or if individual fields of study, like social work and nursing, pursued it as a good. Traditional notions of academic freedom certainly extend to determinations of style and content, and cultural humility is one paradigm among many a teacher might embrace.

The problem is that cultural-humility requirements are increasingly mandated across universities, in every classroom, and for every professor — and thus are not so humble in practice. Cultural humility is considered democratic, equitable, and therefore unambiguously correct. The phrase embodies all that the educational establishment values: anti-racism, anti-oppression, and egalitarian practices. Its proponents hope it can facilitate revolutionary change. Those who resist must be brought along through mandates and condescending references to "best practices."

So let’s call it for what it is: In the name of supposedly forward-looking social change, the cultural-humility mandate imposes a particular and controversial notion of teaching and learning. For those who do not understand the business of university education as a revolutionary project of societal transformation, or do not realize that their own hazy notions about education derive from this source, the idea of cultural humility is deeply troublesome.


It isn’t the concept itself that is incoherent. Quite reasonable in its original context, the term "cultural humility" was first coined by Melanie Tervalon, a health-care consultant and public speaker, and Jann Murray-García, a clinical professor of nursing at the University of California, Davis. Their article on the subject, "Cultural Humility Versus Cultural Competence: A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural Education," appeared in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved in 1998.

The essay’s primary claim is that "cultural competence" — an understanding of patients’ diverse cultural backgrounds and how they influence health-care delivery — can no longer suffice as a paradigm for providing health care to diverse populations. Cultural competence does account for the fact that patients come from a variety of backgrounds and therefore need practitioners who are sensitive to ethnic, racial, and class differences. But the term "competence" also implies that proficiency on cultural matters can be attained once and for all, as when one passes a driving test or obtains a cosmetology license.

The authors then assert, correctly, that cultures are not static, but subject to constant change and evolution. The notion of complete mastery is thus inappropriate in a health-care setting and might even harm patients. They offer evidence of health-care providers who made assumptions about Hispanics and Cambodians that hampered proper diagnosis in actual cases. The practitioners had received training in those cultural traditions, but their assumptions were only partially true or incorrectly applied.

As a corrective to cultural competence, the authors call for "cultural humility." Such humility entails three aspects: a lifelong process of commitment to self-reflection and analysis, attention to power imbalances in the relationship between the physician and the patient, and "developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic partnerships with communities" that aim for systemic change. Crucially, the argument goes, cultural humility requires practitioners to "challenge the institutional forces and processes" that have shaped the relationship between providers and patients. All of this requires social and political transformation. This paradigm has been enthusiastically adopted not only in medicine, but also in social work, a field that has long embraced social-justice imperatives.

But in 2014, James Arvanitakis, a prominent professor of social and cultural analysis at Western Sydney University in Australia, moved to apply the idea of cultural humility well beyond health care and social work to academia as a whole. In a widely cited blog post, he writes that the concept of cultural humility "teaches us that there is always more to know, and more to learn." This concept, he continues, "can be adapted with respect to any cultural interactions" (emphasis added). Citing the revolutionary theory of Paulo Freire, the darling of all progressive educators, Arvanitakis concludes "that teachers have as much to learn from students as students do from teachers."

Of course, this platitude contains truth. In fact, the concept of humility is already deeply engrained in the Western tradition of education. Socrates and Christ, both exemplary teachers, extol the virtues of humility in different but equally powerful ways. Michel de Montaigne maintains that "anyone who wants to be cured of ignorance must confess it." All self-reflective teachers quickly become aware of the limits of their knowledge when faced with questions they have not considered or cannot answer. Do we really need a new notion of "cultural" humility to awaken us to an insight that can trace its lineage from Plato to Robert Maynard Hutchins?

Arvanitakis and Freire, however, speak not as representatives of this tradition, but as revolutionaries who challenge it. They explicitly object to the supposed "neoliberal consensus" on Western education, which they claim seeks to create mere producers and consumers who internalize the oppression of the controlling classes — namely capitalists, "cisgender" men, heterosexuals, and conservatives.

In 2016, Arvanitakis expounded upon the implications of his position. Universities, he maintained, are operating "in a time of disruption" and can no longer continue as presently constituted. The authority possessed by disciplinary gatekeepers and professors is positively harmful to students. Such authority figures promote teaching as "delivery of disciplinary-based content," which is outmoded. New techniques — the flipped classroom, experience-based learning, and service learning — are relevant in ways that mere "information delivery" is not. Relevant learning occurs best "through an exchange of ideas in a non-hierarchical environment," and this requires cultural humility on behalf of teachers. Professors should thus follow the lead of Gramsci’s true intellectual, "who facilitated social change through pragmatic, problem-oriented and culturally relevant expression of ideas, feelings and experiences of the masses."

The problem, according to Arvanitakis, is that vested interests in the university resist change. "Even when senior management and engaged staff are both eager and willing to see change happen," he contends, "the disciplinary barriers built over the generations have made structural innovation near impossible." The existing structural injustices can be rectified only by "integrating aspirations of social change into higher education pedagogical development." He thus calls for "a pedagogical stance that...aspires to liberate the learner from existing power structures by fostering a desire to challenge and change the social system in which we live." Citing Gramsci, he affirms that he and like-minded others seek "to challenge existing power structures and influence how society is shaped."

Though "cultural humility" is a novel expression, the ideas it conveys are not really new. The controlling theory behind it all is Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony. In its most basic sense, "hegemony" means power, control, and domination, as implied in the Greek word hēgemōn, which means "leader" or "ruler." Political domination — of one state over another, or of one group or class over another within a society — is an obvious kind of hegemony.

In representative democracies like the United States, the more significant kind of hegemony has to do with culture. As Raymond Williams describes it in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, cultural hegemony is not merely about politics or even ideology, but is "a more general predominance...a particular way of seeing the world and human nature and relationships." Cultural hegemony in this regard is manifest in institutions, relationships, and even consciousness itself.

On this account, the university enforces its own kind of conservative cultural hegemony while simultaneously standing as part of a larger hegemony that includes government, political institutions, and media. The aim of these societal sectors, according to critical theorists, is indoctrination, as well as the maintenance of oppressive norms of behavior and thought. As Herbert Marcuse put it in his 1965 essay "Repressive Tolerance," such norms include the promotion of war, imperialism, consumerism, and even — wait for it — aggressive driving. These norms are opposed to authentic democracy, inclusion, social justice, and the celebration of moral difference.

The project of critical theory over the past half-century has been to dismantle this imperialist, capitalist, and consumerist hegemony. Has it been a success? Perhaps not so much in the economic sphere. But surveying the scene in terms of the sexual revolution, the bathroom and pronoun wars, cancel culture, and the centrality of diversity mandates in all areas of life, we might be inclined to answer "yes." In fact, many conservative commentators now describe the left-leaning culture of media, foundations, and academia as a new totalitarianism. To use the language of Gramsci, we might more properly call it a new and radical left-leaning cultural hegemony. Gramsci and Marcuse would no doubt be pleased with their success.

Yet despite all these changes, universities retain many of their old-fashioned trappings. Professors continue to lecture, tests with the possibility of disparate grades are given, relationships between professors and students remain hierarchical, specialized degrees are required for teaching posts, and tenure still depends on successfully meeting the guild requirements of criticism and peer review. In these ways, universities have not changed enough for their critics. Higher education, they argue, must now equip people to challenge these remaining inequalities and generate "a democratic environment not as it is but as it can and should be from a social justice perspective" — in other words, one grounded in cultural humility.


Three core ideas provide the structure behind the implementation of cultural humility in the university. The first is a somewhat unrealistic egalitarianism between teachers and students. This is the "humility" part, which requires openness, self-awareness, self-critique, self-reflection, and rejection of ego on the part of teachers.

The concept, as noted above, originates in health care and social work. In these spheres, it makes some sense for a doctor or therapist to assume (at least initially) a posture of listening, of openness, of not-yet-knowing, of engaging in supportive interactions with patients. No clinician is effective before he knows the condition, in significant detail, of the particular patient who presents in the office. The race or gender of the patient may make some difference, or even a great deal of difference, in the outcome of the interaction.

But cultural humility calls for more than mere listening and respect; the clinician must also surrender power, control, and authority. "The worker," write Kathleen Coulborn Faller and Robert Ortega, professors at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, "relinquishes the role of expert to the client and instead becomes a learner." The aim here is to re-order the traditional hierarchy of doctor and patient such that they are equally privileged, or even so that the patient leads the interaction.

When applied to higher education, this notion suggests that students are just as informed as professors. In fact, they may even deserve to lead the class, to determine what is covered and what is omitted, what is offensive and what can be tolerated. The controlling ideas here are avoidance of discomfort, generous encouragement of all points of view, and an "it’s all good" approach to education. Except, of course, for ideas that reinforce tradition or social hierarchy — those aren’t so good, because they reproduce the power structures that need changing.

The second core idea has to do with the supposedly harmless modifier "cultural." Although culture is a notoriously difficult thing to define, here it has the resonance of Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony, where a dominant culture can either be oppressive, as in the imperialist conservative culture that Freire and Marcuse oppose, or positive, open, and affirming, as in the left-leaning diversity culture of today. The thought is that, despite universities having emerged in the West, Western culture should no longer be privileged as a paradigm of university education. Western culture, after all, is just one of many intrinsically valuable cultures, no better and no worse than the others — or maybe just a little bit worse than most.

In truth (and this is nothing new), critical theorists see Western culture as deeply flawed. Some argue that "Western thought," far from being something that ought to be studied and preserved, "is ‘merely’ an indigenized form of knowledge" like that of any other culture. Valuing and studying Western culture unacceptably reinforces its dominance and either shuts out other cultures or sees them merely as footnotes — "the exotic other." Only by "(re)constructing Western knowledge," the argument goes, "will it become possible to move from Western hegemony towards the embrace of diversity."

Finally, and crucially, cultural humility requires that university education aim toward social change. Teachers and students may be equals, and cultures may be equal, but it turns out that Western culture needs a great deal of improvement. It needs so much improvement, in fact, that the primary aim of university teaching ought to be producing citizens who pursue social justice against the forces of oppression and patriarchy inherent to Western culture. In a popular phrase, students should be taught in settings that prioritize "transformation" rather than "transmission" of information or "transactional" learning. Underlying this notion of transformative education is a whole philosophy of history (gradual progress toward the utopian vision of social harmony) and human action (the best thing to do with one’s time is political activism).

On this reading, scholars are valued not for their disinterested approach to subjects, but for their activism. Scholarship is rewarded not merely because it advances a hypothesis or solves an intellectual puzzle, but for the practical difference it makes in the world. The abiding contemporary criterion for good work is not that it contributes to the greater whole of human knowledge, but that it has "relevance," whether scientific, entrepreneurial, or political.

And so we arrive at the current disposition of university education. To summarize: Because the Western tradition is deeply flawed, it must be subjected to "critical thinking." This requires new pedagogical techniques that re-order and flatten power relations in the classroom and across campus. Some fields, like social work, are ahead of the curve in pursuing social justice, and therefore should be allowed to lead the way for those in other disciplines. Cultural humility is a "best practice" in such circles, meaning it should be widely shared across disciplines — even if doing so requires training and soft coercion. Perhaps this strong advocacy of a particular vision doesn’t itself model humility, but to advocates, it is all for a good end: a more just and inclusive society.


There is a compelling alternative to this way of thinking about the university. Defenders of such a view are fewer, less well resourced, and generally deferential (dare I say "humble") toward the powers that be. Nevertheless, they have some crucial ideas about education. Let us call this alternative "liberal education," and sketch out its own way of incorporating humility.

In liberal education, students and teachers alike strive to preserve and renew an inheritance. Expressing it this way allows us to see just how anathema such a vision is to the dominant social-justice paradigm. For intellectual activists, the past is a problem that must be solved, ignored, or repudiated. For liberal education, the past is a source of insight and wisdom. The aim of education is something humble, if difficult: to see and to understand.

Is the Western tradition, or any tradition, wholly good and praiseworthy? Of course not; part of what scholars, teachers, and students must do, according to the liberal notion of education, is the work of evaluation and judgment. The relevant questions include: What should we conserve? What should be reformed? What should we reject? As Alan Jacobs has observed, in looking back at people who lived and wrote before us, we will

sometimes ask ourselves how a person could be so incisively critical of some injustices while being so utterly blind to others — but then, don’t we also think that about people we meet today? Isn’t this strange mixture of vices and virtues, foolishness and wisdom, blindness and insight, simply the human condition?

Embracing and appreciating a tradition does not mean that we become cheerleaders for or ideologues of that tradition. Rather, it means acknowledging that the past contains good and valuable ideas, artistic expressions, books, images, and arguments. To believe otherwise would be arrogant, not humble.

Even prior to these essentially moral questions lies a challenge not of evaluation, but of disposition. People are so hardwired to be morally judgmental that it is difficult to enjoy or to even contemplate the thoughts of someone else. But if we do, there is much to be gained: a new view of the world, perhaps a softening of one’s own hard edges, a sudden recognition, a conversion of some kind, or perhaps just an elegant confirmation of what we already believed. The dispositional challenge of liberal humility is learning to appreciate, rather than to criticize, to enjoy a leisurely appraisal of something without rushing to pronounce on its merits.

This is impossible in social-justice education because such an education springs from a largely cynical set of assumptions about power and then aims relentlessly at political and moral improvement. Cultural humility in the pedagogical context requires the elimination or downplaying of hierarchy, authority, and traditional roles. In place of these elements, it calls for the egalitarian classroom, with a teacher as facilitator as opposed to information deliverer. But is this always the best method of education?

Traditionally, most fields of study require not teachers, but students to submit themselves at the outset to a significant number of facts: the three branches of government, Michelangelo’s major works, the notes on the musical staff, how to calculate the derivative of a function. The disposition of the student in this case — whether learning from a teacher or a textbook — is one of humility. The teacher, meanwhile, adopts the posture of an authority figure. The enthusiasm of a teacher in such a position often works subtly upon a student’s soul, shaping his notions of what is compelling or strange, tasteful or crude.

In fact, there are times when a professor’s sheer intellectual firepower can knock students off their feet, awakening in them a newfound sense of wonder. I once observed a colleague’s class on Middlemarch. The students initially looked bored: They checked their phones and shuffled and talked and did everything students normally do when they’re not interested. But the teacher told such a compelling story about George Eliot, and England, and George Henry Lewes, and Ludwig Feuerbach, and history, and human nature, that by the end of the class, the students sat wide-eyed in admiration. Should my colleague have downplayed his knowledge, or pretended that he knew nothing, or acted as though his interpretation of the book was equal to that of the students, in the name of social justice?

At times a terrifying teacher may even be precisely what a student needs most in order to be humbled and, in turn, to learn. According to the cultural-humility rubric, such a teacher would be out of bounds. But if we reflect on our own experiences, isn’t it sometimes the case that the most intimidating teachers elicited the best from us? Perhaps it was precisely their reticence about giving praise that pushed us to do our most careful work. Maybe this teacher’s understated "well done" on a paper was worth infinitely more than copious encouragement from someone much more approachable and friendly. Sometimes a good swift (metaphorical) kick was precisely what the cocky young man in the classroom needed most. Such are the workings of humility in liberal education.

Pace cultural humility, pain and embarrassment are vital parts of learning. Unlike social work or medicine, education’s aim is not the alleviation of pain, discomfort, or subpar functioning; part of a teacher’s job is exposing students to "excel-lence" in its various forms. Students may worry that they themselves will never attain such excellence, and this in itself is painful. Though we all seek comfort and approbation, the experience of suffering is usually the most concentrated and vivid "learning experience" we receive. After all, do we ever really forget our most agonizing moments?

The chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon says, "we must suffer, suffer into truth." Rousseau, often considered the father of progressive education, maintains that "to suffer is the first thing [Emile] ought to learn and the thing he will most need to know." Such suffering may at times be relatively ordinary. I will never forget presenting my favorite college professor with a paper that I knew was excellent. I waited eagerly for the praise it deserved, but instead he took it apart line by line, showing its inadequacies in painful and minute detail. I was embarrassed, disappointed, even humiliated. I remember the incident to this day. It was a formative experience, and not at all a bad one.

At other times, terrible suffering can foster outstanding works: C. S. Lewis’s "A Grief Observed," Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s "Letters and Papers from Prison," or Viktor Frankl’s writings on concentration camps. The point here is not that suffering should be arbitrarily inflicted or that professors should aim at hurting or embarrassing students; it is rather that college students should be treated like the adults they are or will soon become. Let them see excellence and judge where they themselves fall short. Let them learn their own limitations, recognize their own partial and inadequate views, and feel that they have barely begun the work of knowing.

Finally, there is the issue of truth. We have all likely been involved in discussions where the facilitator was overly deferential to the participants. Every comment is met with "great question" or "that’s such an interesting point" or "thanks so much for sharing." Nobody ever says anything wrong. But participants may wonder whether they have gained anything at the end.

In fact, students often don’t like these discussions, or so they have told me. And such discussions are not really "Socratic," as their proponents may assert. Students want to know where the boundaries are — what is true and what is not. They want to know what a good interpretation of Aristotle is and where they have simply misunderstood him. This doesn’t preclude multiple interpretations of any text. But if we are so concerned with the delicate egos of those in our classes that we cannot ever correct anyone, then we are delivering them nothing of substance at all.

There is no better way to learn true humility than to face excellence, to appreciate our smallness and inadequacy in relation to human greatness — and ultimately our smallness in relation to God. This is difficult in a culture like ours that continually encourages self-promotion and the development of self-esteem. But it is worth remembering Dietrich von Hildebrand’s observation that while love is a divine virtue, "humility is the precondition and basic presupposition for the genuineness, the beauty, and the truth of all [human] virtue." It is therefore worth thinking about carefully, and maybe even trying to integrate into our own character.

Cultural humility, by contrast, offers a politically motivated distortion of this fundamental virtue. As G. K. Chesterton observed, "the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad." Cultural humility is clever precisely because it appears unobjectionable on its face but hides a bankrupt revolutionary agenda. We would do well to see it for what it really is.

Elizabeth Corey is an associate professor of political science at Baylor University.


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