The Token Conservative: Mistakes that don’t kill you only make you smarter

The old Disney movie, “The Absent-Minded Professor,” is a favorite of mine because it argues that someone can be a loveable and brilliant person despite having many faults.

It also sent a message to several generations of university students that their professors were going to be wonderful people, but still only people.

I recently read an essay by a professor at some other school admitting that he was no longer afraid of being caught making a mistake by a student.

He had said something erroneous about the first phonograph in a lecture. Later, one of his students visited him and pointed out the correct fact in a book. At first, he was embarrassed. He was paid to be a source of knowledge, and being wrong destroyed his credibility.

Then he realized that his mistake had prompted the student to do some research. As a teacher, he was pleased that something he did had led to deeper learning-even if he’d never do it again.

I was intrigued by this essay and asked one of The Chronicle’s news writers to interview several professors about how they deal with being wrong in a profession based upon facts.

After contacting about 15 people, she gave up because it was becoming a horrific experience.

I don’t know everyone she talked to, and I don’t know what she asked them or how she said it, but professors were not happy about being interviewed.

The very few who answered her questions said they were offended when students caught their mistakes. Some admitted that, like all humans, they sometimes made mistakes, but refused to elaborate.


Everyone screws up at the job sometimes-everyone. Sometimes the mistakes are big and other times small, but human error is a reality that every business, school and government deals with.

Evidently none of the professors contacted shared the sentiments of the instructor whose essay I’d read.

That causes me to question the philosophy of education at this school.

The professor I’d read about saw himself as a guide, not a fountain of knowledge. A guide isn’t always an expert; a guide is a person who knows how to take other people somewhere they want or need to go.

Learning is a journey. Test scores and paper grades aren’t the purpose of school-they are compasses and maps that assess direction and speed.

Taking a queue from Volkswagen, “On the road of life, there are instructors and there are guides. Guides wanted.”

When I notice that a professor makes a mistake, it reminds me that we never know “enough.” In each of our respective fields and professions, we will constantly need to be on our toes.

There is always more to learn, there are always new questions to ask, new perspectives and paradigms to explore. As Stephen Covey says, we always need to be “sharpening our saws.”

The more open and honest a teacher is about his or her fallibility, the more aware students will be that the teacher’s job is not to provide knowledge, but to facilitate discovery.

Besides, what’s wrong with making a mistake? Coca-Cola, sticky notes, Scotchgard, Silly Putty and penicillin were all invented through mistakes.

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