Skip to main content

Honors convocation: "Afraid to be wrong"

2018 Augustana College Honors Convocation
Steve Bahls, President

On behalf of the faculty, staff and trustees of Augustana College, it’s my pleasure, and indeed my honor, to congratulate you for your achievements at Augustana. We are so very proud of you.

And parents, congratulations to you. Honor students don’t achieve their potential without considerable investment from their parents. As the parent of three honor students myself, I know first-hand how parents encourage their students. I know how many late nights you have spent helping your students stay focused on homework. And how you worked so hard when your students were young to encourage them to be curious about the world around them and creative in their approach to life. You’ve been your students’ cheerleader, mentor, and constructive critic. You’ve made it happen for your students.

And, parents, you’ve seen how others made it happen for your students, as well. Just as you engaged in your students’ lives, others have too — in their schools, arts and athletic programs, and more. I am particularly proud of those colleagues here at Augustana who have made a real difference for your students – particularly our faculty. Faculty members have invested their time and efforts both in challenging your students and opening doors for them. Students, family and friends, may we take a moment to thank our faculty.

As part of my brief comments to you, I’d like to reflect on something a student said to me a couple of weeks ago. She said that what causes so much unnecessary conflict in our world is the fear we have of being wrong. We sometimes avoid introspection and are too quick to defend our hastily-drawn conclusions.

At law school I caught lawyer-itis. I thought I was right on everything. I was really, really afraid of being wrong.

Students, I have a confession to make. I am afraid to be wrong. Yes, I am 63 years old and the president of a college and I am still afraid to be wrong. And I don’t think I’m in any way remarkable because of that — especially here among these colleagues. It is the nature of academic preparation that the further along you go, the more it is expected of you to stake out a position and defend it, vigorously. By the time you attain the master’s or doctoral degree, the pressure is on to not be wrong.

But it starts far earlier than that. As an undergraduate, I was, like you, an honors student and was proud of my academic ability. I was also on the Debate team at my college. We were good. In fact, we were so good that we could beat every team but two — Northwestern University and, you guessed it, Augustana College. If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em! At any rate, I was an expert on arguing both sides of an issue. In fact, I would convince myself I was right, whatever side of the issue I was on. Compounding all this, I went to law school (at Northwestern, the other team I couldn’t beat). Again, if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em. Anyway, at law school I caught lawyer-itis. I thought I was right on everything. I was really, really afraid of being wrong.

But something happened to convince me I could be wrong. I met someone who could be gently, but brutally honest with me. Some of you know her — the First Lady of Augustana College, my wife, Jane. Thanks, Jane. May you all be blessed with such a wonderful life partner!

In addition to Jane, some caring but tough mentors impressed upon me that though most people are afraid of it, it’s OK to be wrong.

So while I still don’t like to be wrong, I’ve learned several lessons about the fear of being wrong:

The first lesson is that those who think they are never wrong fail to engage in critical thinking. In many cases they arrive at a gut conclusion and cease critical thinking. Honor students, you know critical thinking is hard work. You know to question assumptions, look at problems from different angles and examine your own biases. You know that stopping an inquiry early leads to incomplete and inaccurate conclusions. And you know that things change — conclusions that might seem right today can be wrong tomorrow. Never stop the hard work of critical thinking because you are afraid of being wrong.

The second lesson is not to surround yourself with people who think just like you. Increasingly we choose our friends by those who share our beliefs on most everything. Likewise, we are increasingly segregated into clubs, churches and even zip codes where there is little diversity of thought. When we surround ourselves with those who think like us, our groups become echo chambers.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1919 that the best test of the truth is for it to arise in the marketplace of ideas. One of my greatest pleasures over the years has been working and socializing with diverse groups of people, who challenge my ideas and help me grow. Honor students, resolve to do the same. Get outside of your comfort zone and look for people who are different from you. This will create robust market places of thought that will allow the best ideas to flourish and will help you continue to grow as a person.

The third lesson that I’ve learned is that hubris stands in the way of admitting we might be wrong. Hubris means excessive pride and self-confidence. Do you know people who are so sure their ideas are better than almost everyone else that they are smug and self-righteous? People like that fail to respect others. Instead, they demonize anyone who challenges them. Too often we see this in people elected to lead. They seem to believe, "I was elected to this position, so I must be right." "I was appointed to this position, so I should not be questioned." And too often we see this in the highly educated. "I’ve earned my education," they think, "so I know I’m right." In almost all cases these people are masking their fear of being wrong.

Singer-songwriter Moby said this about hubris: "Whenever I've had success, I never learn from it. Success usually breeds a degree of hubris. When you fail, that’s when you learn." So students, avoid the trap of letting your success lead to hubris. Instead recall what you’ve learned to make you successful – that critical thinking is hard work, and that it’s a life-long endeavor.

In addition to these three lessons, I’d like to issue one final challenge. When you meet people who are so sure of themselves that their fear of being wrong harms others, call them out. The bravado of those who are sexist and racist usually masks their insecurity and fear. The same can go, though, for those who jump to conclusions about other people’s motives without examining the evidence. Those who fail to engage in critical thinking may engage in bullying, which includes social media mobbing to assassinate the character of someone whose only mistake might be having a different vantage point than you do. Use your Augie education to call out those who harm others in these ways.;

Well, students, back to my fear of being wrong. Let me introduce you to my friend, George. When I’m fearful of being wrong and want affirmation of some half-baked idea, I turn to George and flip the on switch. "Hey George, how’s this idea?" "Hey George, am I right?" "Hey George, isn’t my leadership the greatest?" Then I turn George off and get down to the hard work of critical thinking.

Honors students, don’t surround yourself with Georges. You’ve shown you have skills to be critical thinkers. But you have shown more. You have shown that you are committed to doing justice, loving kindness and being humble about your accomplishments. As you leave Augustana – continue to grow and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Congratulations!