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Thomas J. MassaroFebruary 13, 2012

The only thing I do not like about my first name is its association with the verb to doubt. Thanks to the incredulity displayed by a certain apostle in chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, the phrase “doubting Thomas” can still be deployed as a winged taunt against anyone who shares my name.

Yet I sometimes persist in displaying doubt even when I should not. Sometimes it is self-doubt in which I indulge, but far more often I find myself unfairly doubting the abilities of others to get a job done. Here is an example. On the university campus where I work, a new building is going up just yards from my office. The occasional glance out my window has me second-guessing the workers laboring on this ambitious project. I catch myself muttering: At this rate, they will never meet the announced completion date. That bricklayer is clueless. We should hire a landscaper who appreciates straight lines.

My predictions of failure have proved wrong on all counts. Without exception, the workers I initially derided turned out to know precisely how to do their job effectively and efficiently. Maybe this is not so surprising. The know-it-all hats we love to don invariably morph into self-deception caps. Naysayers should think twice before dismissing the hard-won skill and accumulated knowhow of dedicated workers in any field. Every doubting Thomas will have his comeuppance.

Fresh from this mea culpa experience, I recently stumbled upon Michael Hickey’s fascinating book Get Goodness: Virtue Is the Power to Do Good (University Press of America, 2011). Unlike most books about virtue ethics, this one features more refreshing poetry than moralizing prose. Each of the 47 brief chapters describing distinct virtues contains an insightful poem that captures the virtue being extolled. You will find here descriptions of some standard virtues, like compassion, generosity, hope and loyalty, but also many that may surprise you, like curiosity, pride and silence.

My only disappointment is that the book contains no entry that matches exactly the virtue I describe above: the grace to resist the temptation to doubt the prowess of others. Sure, we do get three pages on “humility,” including an exceptional poem treating the humility of Christ in the Incarnation. But this brand of humility does not quite capture the attitude I have in mind.

Nor does Hickey’s volume contain an entry on modesty, an alternate name for the virtue I am commending. Coincidentally, I recently attended an ethics conference where “A Proposal for Modesty” was the title of one session listed in the program. Imagine my surprise when the presentation turned out to focus on decorum in personal appearance and clothing selection, and did not address modesty of judgment at all!

So allow me to propose my version of the virtue of humility or modesty of judgment as especially appropriate to our “age of the know-it-all.” If all the doubting Thomases out there turned the doubt back upon themselves once in a while, we would all be better off. I know I would benefit from this challenge. One familiar stereotype is the new boss or co-worker who arrives with a head full of ideas for changing the workplace but displays an inadequate appreciation for the carefully calibrated division of labor and social ecology already in place. While existing work arrangements and procedures always stand to be scrutinized and improved, the oldest story in the book is the reformer who is blind to the received wisdom about accustomed ways of doing things that keep the ship running, even if the merits of these practices might not be immediately evident to outsiders.

This issue of America is dedicated to the topic of theological education, an endeavor that generates a bounty of sharp exchanges of opinion. A recent article on education reform proposals in Time magazine, for example, elicited a spate of strong responses, including a letter from a New Jersey teacher who wrote: “I am tired of people who have never taught a roomful of 34 high school students telling me I am doing it wrong.” Touché.

If the original doubting Thomas was able to take correction so well, why can’t we today? Greater openness to revising our biased judgments and not discounting the wisdom of others would serve us well in private and public life.

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