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Intellectual Humility

More than twenty-five years ago, I interviewed a man who was outwardly the least likely candidate to be an expert on anything, let alone a major era of American history. Dean Helton of Powell, Tennessee, was a high school dropout, a former bus driver, and, at the time of our interview, “just” a janitor at the local public high school.  As I got to know him better, however, I realized that he truly was an expert on the War Between the States, particularly of one specific military unit involved in that war.

Although he had dropped out of school in eleventh grade, Helton certainly knew a lot about the Civil War, the era, and the military units and combat history. How could that be? He obviously didn’t like school, and he especially disliked history–at least as it was taught at his school. But he learned that his great-grandfather had been a soldier in the Confederate army. His interest piqued, he began to do some research, and that interest only grew when he learned that in 1863 his ancestor had been encamped at Bell’s Bridge, as Powell was then known.

Helton got involved in reenacting and participated in twenty-two battles and “Living History” events in his first year as a reenactor. At the time of our interview, he was participating in fifteen to eighteen events a year and coordinating the first reenactment at Bell’s Bridge, an event that would become an annual attraction.

Helton clearly knew his subject and was passionate about it. One has to be obsessed with the subject to travel that much and to pay for historically authentic clothing, weapons, and equipment from his own pocket. But he wanted to share his knowledge and passion with others, especially young people. He wanted them to experience the thrill of learning history and to stay in school. Yet, Helton was still a student himself. He acknowledged that the more he learned the more he had yet to learn. The realization humbled him.

I thought of Dean Helton the other day as I watched a video presentation by Lawrence Reed, the president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Speaking of real heroes and the characteristics that they share, Reed listed honesty, intellectual humility, responsibility, and courage. When he mentioned intellectual humility, Helton immediately came to my mind. As much as he knew about the subject of his passion, he realized that no one, certainly not he, can ever know it all–about anything. He was always striving to know his subject better. And as he learned, he shared his knowledge freely with others.

Someone once summarized the life of the biblical patriarch Moses this way:

  1. Forty years of being somebody (the adopted son of pharaoh),

  2. Forty years learning that he was nobody (his experiences in the wilderness), and

  3. Forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody (leading Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land).

Humility, genuine meekness, and true knowledge–that’s a pretty good standard to shoot for in every area of life. Much in life–and government–would be different if we all made that our goal.

P.S.–If you get a chance and are so inclined, check out my soon-to-be-published book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (McFarland Publishing) at

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