On Humility

Last week a politician made a mistake when she talked about UCC’s Ontario Model Parliament and our use of Queens Park; the government official got her facts wrong, branded us as elitist, and as of yet, has refused to apologize for her error. (We’ve all had bad days!)

When Mr. Kawasoe discussed this with the Prep boys on Friday, he stressed some familiar themes: “Do your research. Find the facts, and be knowledgeable. When you make a mistake, apologize and make it right.”

As usual, Mr. Kawasoe was dead on, but with an older audience here this morning, I’d like to add one more variable to the mix, and I apologize if my argument sounds shallow. I want to talk about impressions and perceptions.

We know that there are people out there — good people by the way –who don’t like the notion of private schools in general, and have a dislike for schools like UCC in particular.  These folks see us as the sons of Bertie Wooster, entitled toffs, who hold our smug noses in the air, as we lap our lattes and gaze disapprovingly down on all the “littles” who approach but never quite feel comfortable enough to enter through our wrought iron gates. Even our geographic location suggests privilege: Avenue Road, the main North South thoroughfare in the biggest city in the country, literally bends to our collective will. There is, after all, no “welcome” sign outside our version of Downton Abbey!

Throw in the fact that we also happen to be a single gender school, and a boys school at that, and you can almost understand why the very thought of UCC’s blue blooded, blue blazered. “Pass me the Grey Poupon,” old boy connected culture has some folks racing for the Pepto Bismol. God bless us, everyone!

We may see UCC in a different light, and while privately we might find solace in our socio-economic diversity and our commitment to service, we have to acknowledge that those things don’t make headlines. As a student once told me, “No matter what we do, we will always be seen through the shadow of the clock-tower.”

If that student is right, and I think there is some truth in what he said, I want to offer 4 simple suggestions this morning.

Simple Suggestion One: If entitlement is our original sin, then we should do everything we can to counter any sense of collective arrogance. I suggest we start small. If you see a stranger in the foyer who looks a little lost, stop and ask him if he needs some help. If he doesn’t know where he is going, don’t just point to an office; take the time to walk him there. Little things mean a lot. Forgive me for a utilitarian bent even with this, but university representatives, for example, are often influenced, not just by the boys they interview but also by the student body they observe during their time on campus.

Simple Suggestion Two: One of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite books is the description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby.”

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

I confess that carelessness is a big issue for me, in part because when I was a kid, my grandfather worked in the maintenance department at Ardmore Avenue Public School.  My first introduction to the world of schools was through his eyes. I was sensitive to how the Ardmore Avenue kids treated him and “his” school.

I know that adolescence can be a sloppy stage of life, but can I ask you to do me a favour:  at least when you are at school, I’d like you to go out of your way to pick up after yourselves. For example, when lunch is ending in the Student Centre, remember to throw your trash away. It says all the wrong things if you go Tom and Daisy on us and let other people, especially those considered lower on the ladder, clean up the mess. That sort of blind carelessness reinforces all the wrong things.

Simple Suggestion Three: A few years ago, I had a conversation with a UCC boy, as he was heading off to a particularly exclusive university. The boy was somewhat introverted, and as someone with the same disposition myself, I readily admit there is nothing at all wrong with intensely enjoying your own company. But my advice to the old boy was this: If you don’t greet people a little more warmly, if you don’t extend yourself just a little bit more socially, you run the risk of being perceived as aloof. Because he’d been at UCC for years, people knew and accepted him for what he was. But when you go to a new environment, where people don’t know you and all they perceive is that you are part of an exclusive club, your reticence might be misinterpreted. If that resonates with you, you might consider pushing yourself just a bit to connect with others.

Simple Suggestion Four: Let’s admit that the most effective antidote to arrogance is a sense of humility.  You may not have experienced this yet, but eventually life teaches every one of us the centrality of this virtue. We all age, and fail, and fall apart, and lose friends and games and jobs and teeth and hair and so much more. The best people I know are those who learned humility early in life. In the process, they came to know themselves, and they avoided what Walker Percy once called, the “great suck of self.” They grasped the truth that life isn’t about my hair, my face, my transcript, my future,  my recommendations, my university applications, or even my IB score — as impressive as all of these might be! Remember, as David Brooks points out in “The Road to Character” that Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. We’ve got to make ourselves small in order to really appreciate the grand landscape of humanity that’s all around us – that we are a small part of.

And finally, don’t forget to say thank you. As an example, last Thursday night we had our annual reunion for Old Boys in NYC, and one of those in attendance was Devin Hart. Devin was on the football and rugby teams, and he was head steward. But he was an especially good musician, and an even better guy. When I asked him what advice he’d offer today’s students, here’s what he said:


So my handy dandy “kids DO try this at home” take-aways for today are:

1.  Say hello to and perhaps even help a stranger
2. Remember Tom and Daisy and don’t go “Lord Grantham” on me
3. Extend yourself, even if you are shy.
4. The most interesting man in the world used to say “Stay thirsty, my friends”. Today he’s saying, “Stay humble, my friend.” Be your best down to earth self every day.
5. Remember to say thank you.

None of this will radically alter the fate of western civilization. The Leafs still may not make the playoffs next year. But remember Coach Wooden’s advice: ”It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”









29 thoughts on “On Humility

  1. Thank you for an excellent message on the importance of humility. One of the reasons we did NOT want to send our son to UCC initially was because he would be surrounded by a sense of entitlement. We do not want a young man who feels he is entitled to receive rather than to give because of his educational experience. This message coming from the Principal of UCC was an excellent reminder to all about our responsibility to give back and remain humble. As parents we can only hope that the boys continue to receive this message by other staff throughout their high school years so that they do not easily forget how important it is to remain humble and use their privilege and education to give to those that are less fortunate.

  2. I was saddened to see the story of a fellow modestly-raised Old Boy (in the magazine) who had been channeled, or perhaps found his own way, to Wall Street.

    Was that really such an “improvement” from whatever less gilded life path he might have been on as the son of a Montreal doorman? Was he really rescued by UCC’s financial aid? That was the implication, and to me it was both classist and offensive. It seemed as if he had been saved from a dreadful fate. I’m sure many sons of Montreal doormen go on to interesting and meaningful lives.

    Regardless, I obviously wish the young man well.

    Personally, I work in a white-collar occupation but wish I was a little handier. Those skills are also highly valued in today’s job market.

    I’d love to see Old Boys working in the skilled trades profiled. Their lives are as productive as any artist’s and as honorable as any banker’s. The closest thing I have seen is the guys who opened a gourmet hot dog stand in Prince Edward County, which did look pretty cool.

    If we really are a community, what about the guys who burnt out or had some bad luck; were not ambitious; who work in gas stations, who work at Wal-Mart? Do we ignore them? Are they dead to us? They are not dead to me.

    I don’t think I’ll see an electrician profiled in the magazine – do you? The reason is pretty obvious and gets to the heart of the “elitism” question that dogs UCC. It’s not really UCC’s fault – it’s a machine for perpetuating privilege in a society where there is a market for such a machine. A society that is classist (that’s one thing), but that for 35 years has also been *unashamedly* classist.

    A public magnet school can provide a pretty good education without the side-helping of country club.

    We have a very healthy and long-overdue debate about inequality in our politics now. I sense the pendulum swinging back to the consensus of the 1950s and 1960s, when our Depression-scarred grandparents had the good sense to see inequality as a fundamental challenge to be aggressively and politically confronted, rather than a social ill to be patronizingly addressed with ostentatious Victorian-style charity. Egalitarianism and material understatement was in the air, evident in every aspect of life and in a thriving middle class. I can only hope it will return in full force.

    In the meantime, at least until the next Reagan revolution, UCC will remain an unfortunate symbol of the Kardashian era in Canada.

  3. If you have but one virtue – HUMILITY is the necessary ingredient to a productive and enjoyable life.

  4. BTW, I made my son read your assembly speak on being humble. Exceptionally well written, even if I did not get all of the references. Thank god for wikipedia.

  5. I think that ‘of all’ the character traits, humility is the most fascinating (or at least a firm contender for such an accolade). Real humility is arguably a rare and precious find, not just in Generation X, Y, or Z, but at any age and in any human heart.

    In a determined effort to master (even) one of Covey’s ideas before I leave this planet, I thought I’d email three quick wonderings that keep “the main thing” firmly centre stage.

    #1: Humility as a measure of a great school
    A wise commentator (I forget who) once suggested that the true measure of a ‘civilized’ society was the extent to which it cared for its weak (the infirm, poor, elderly, marginalized etc.)

    I wonder if one measure (or characteristic or test) of a ‘great school’ is how it treats the less powerful or ‘lowly’ or outsider, whomever they are perceived to be in any given educational hierarchy.

    #2. How to spot Humility
    I wonder how easy it is to spot real humility (in adult leaders, student leaders, any leaders)? Probably as tricky as it is to develop this particular character trait. After all, the humble, by definition, are the least likely to advertise the fact! And yet, I wonder if these are the folks best able to exercise power ‘safely’? (After all, Frodo was chosen as ring-bearer not just because he had ‘grit’, but because he was humble.)

    #3: The alchemy of Humility
    (On a more spiritual note) I once heard another wise commentator (again, I forget who) comment that the more humble the heart or person, the more God could use that person to ‘do stuff’ or to work through (or words to that effect.)
    After all, wasn’t Moses the most humble man on earth as well as the chap who parted the Red Sea? (Other Old Testament characters didn’t get to do that, even on a good day!) Could God trust Moses with the power to call down such incredible natural miracles because Moses would never claim any of the glory? (God can’t share His glory.)
    Perhaps it’s easier to hazard a guess at the foundations of other character traits such as ‘grit’. A strong sense of self-belief, attachment to a particular goal or belief system, optimism?…..the list might go on.

    But I wonder if the alchemy of true humility is harder to define. It certainly looks a tougher road to walk, or, as you suggest, a smaller doorway to enter. (A doorway perhaps no bigger than the eye of a needle?!)

    In terms of the alchemy of humility, your line about loss really resonates (‘friends and games and jobs and teeth and hair and so much more’) and/but I wonder if there are other ingredients in this mysterious crucible? Gratitude might possibly be one. Certainly, I would vote for ‘wilderness time’ whatever that looks like. After all, Moses went from palace to desert wilderness, Joseph from father’s favourite to prison, and David from Saul’s court to cave.
    (I once heard another commentator talk about Moses’ amazing heart journey – palace to desert before he was given his leadership mantle. In fact, this same speaker was using this ancient story as a paradigm for leadership training in the modern secular world.)

    (P.S Your piece reminded me that I must read more P.G. Wodehouse, particularly on rainy cheerless days.)

  6. Dr. Power,

    I read your blog post today in response to the comments made by MPP Cheri DiNovo regarding the Ontario Model Parliament and its association with UCC. As someone who found my progressive political roots as a UCC student participating in OMP, I’ve been very troubled by Cheri’s comments and her refusal to apologize or correct the misstatements she made.

    In contrast, I found your post to be refreshing and the perfect message for the students in response to this. Although UCC students are “privileged” in almost every way imaginable, one of the challenges that I faced, and that I think all UCC grads face, after graduating is that there are always people ready to judge you based on the stereotype of UCC as an “elitist” and “exclusive” institution. The only way to fight that, as you point out, is to face the world with humility, warmth and generosity. You have to take those negative expectations and just be better.

    Thanks for showing the boys how to be better.

    A proud Old Boy,
    Chris Horkins, Class of 2004

  7. Thanks, Jim. Always love your writing and will probably be stealing from you quite promptly. I thought I would share a laugh from the President’s speech to the Correspondents Dinner–one of my favorite jokes that night. “People say I’m arrogant and aloof,” the President said. “Some people are so dumb.”
    Best wishes from Colorado!

  8. JIm-

    You make some very practical suggestions as to how your UCC students can act and live better on a daily basis. They are good points.

    Otherwise, your piece left a bad taste in my mouth. Let’s not kid ourselves.

    Both the all boys Jesuit high school in Philadelphia we attended (“The Prep”), and UCC, are,, in fact, elitist, exclusive and for the privileged. Both also provide the entrance card to very powerful old boy networks.

    If they are honest, that is why parents send their boys to The Prep and to UCC.

    The Jesuit notion of “Men for Others” we learned at The Prep, and, as you highlight, UCC’s “socio-economic diversity and our commitment to service”, are simply noblesse oblige.

    Ken Kolaski

    1. Ken,

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

      Not to make too fine a distinction with this, but I believe that schools like UCC and SJP want to be “elite” without being “elitist.” (That may be too Jesuitical a distinction, even for me!)

      I do believe that the notion of becoming “men for others” is always aspirational, and as for our schools’ commitment to financial aid and socio economic diversity, I think those are bedrock beliefs. FA is essential, not just for the boys from less privileged backgrounds; it’s good for everyone. (Sorry if I sound defensive on this point, but I buy the argument that educational opportunity is the civil rights era of our time.)

      Thanks again for your note.

      1. Jim-

        I stand by my comment.

        It is not mere coincidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Princeton graduate, has Jay Gatsby, the symbol of new money, frequently greet and refer to Nick Carraway, the Yale graduate, as “Old Boy”.

        UCC is elite. That is, it is one of the best in its category – a private boys preparatory school.

        UCC is also elitist. UCC and its graduates are considered by others, (and my point) ARE CONSIDERED BY THEMSELVES, to be superior in intellect, talent, power, wealth, or position in society.

        However helpful, sociable, tidy, humble and appreciative UCC students and “Old Boys” are will not change these facts.



      2. Ken,

        An interesting question: If you are right — and I’m not willing to concede that you are, as least just yet — that our boys see themselves as superior, what should we do?

        There is a fine line: We DO want the boys to feel confident, but we don’t want them to be at all haughty. Any wisdom on how we should approach this?

      3. Jim-

        Most of your students will remember this from Spiderman:

        [last lines] Peter Parker: [voiceover]: Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-man.

        Hence, I come full circle to open acceptance and acknowledgment of the gift of being elite and elitist but teaching your students that this reality comes with the “curse” of Voltaire’s noblesse oblige.

        “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48.


        Ken Kolaski

  9. This is incredible, instead of criticizing problems of the politician, UCC is finding ways it can improve itself.

    Even I went to a different school i truly admire principle powers’s thinking.

  10. We look so forward to reading your posts…all so insightful, so true…,so contextual and so real!

  11. Thanks J-dawg. You are the best. Go Humility!


    Daniel J. McMahon, Ph.D. Principal DeMatha Catholic High School 4313 Madison Street Hyattsville MD 20781-1692 240-764-2202 office 240-764-2275 fax

  12. Once again, you are imparting invaluable advice to the boys in Laidlaw Hall. In my day, we were taught to believe we were living in the Great Gatsby – well we were never told to believe we were not. There was a great deal of emphasis at the time on reminding us often just how many people wanted to be in the pew we were sitting on.

    I continue to enjoy the lessons you impart to the boys outside the classroom, which are at least as valuable as anything they will learn inside the classroom. Anyone who can bring humility to UCC is my kind of guy.

    You’re a good egg, Jim. I like what you have done with UCC.
    Great piece, Jim.

  13. Jim, my perception of UCC for 30 years has been based on the character of your AD and your coaches. . From my recent interactions with other UCC students and educators my affection for UCC continues to grow. Yes, all of us, students and teachers alike can be ambassadors every day.

  14. Thanks, Jim.

    I love The Great Gatsby and usually find myself reading it every few years. A woman from DC recently wrote a book about its history and what that history tell us.

    Humility is tough to talk about. We see so much false humility, including–and maybe especially–in the realm of professional sports. I wonder if really getting the point you are making requires a particular kind of direct experience and then an opportunity to reflect on that experience.

  15. A (another) excellent piece. If there is one thing that makes me crazy, it is entitlement. Thus I find your message particularly thoughtful and pertinent for our very lucky young men. My favorite quote to the boys on the subject? I worry that many of them were born on third base, but think they hit a triple. Whaddaya think?

  16. Like the rant…

    I think that the way I act/dress today is in large part a reflection of me not wanting to come across as an elitist.

    I wear sweatpants and gym shorts far too often at university, but I would rather look like a slob than one of berty wooster’s friends.

  17. Jim,

    What wonderful, reasoned response. There are plenty of “bashers” who consider private schools to be fair game, not recognizing the reasons that we chose to send our boys there.

    Thank you for it, and all that you do to keep UCC the school that it is. I admire what you are doing daily.

    Best regards,

    Michael Murton
    Father of Michael Murton

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