Reason Requires that You Accept You May Be Wrong

Wake Forest University’s Commencement ceremony was particularly special this year because my oldest son graduated (with a B.S. in Finance, Summa Cum Laude, if I may brag on him just a bit). It is always exciting to be present to the symbolic transition of students from their pasts into their futures. All the more so when that student is your kid and you have a front row seat and can snap a quick selfie.

This year’s commencement speaker was Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian (books on Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and George H.W. Bush). In the era of celebrity commencement speakers — e.g., Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest in 2015, Will Ferrell at USC this year — choosing a scholar to give your commencement address can inspire reactions from yawns to disappointment (among students, especially).

Of course, choosing someone as your commencement speaker because they are smart instead of well-known or wealthy has the benefit of producing smarter commencement addresses. To wit: In my time as a faculty member, David Brooks gave one of the smarter commencement addresses I’ve seen.

Monday, May 21, 2007. Wake Forest professor David Yamane hoods David Brooks with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

I thought Jon Meacham’s commencement address this year was smart, too. In particular he talked about partisanship, reason, reflection, truth, and error in a way I found compelling. I’ve bolded the sections I found most significant in the extended excerpt below:

The great fact of America today is pervasive partisanship. Too many of us are given to reflexively reacting to whatever unfolds in the public square – not according to our reason but to our ideological and even tribal predispositions. Now I want to be very clear about this. Partisanship is not an intrinsically bad thing. The middle way is not always the right way. It’s in the nature of things and in the nature of human beings to hold fast to views and allegiances, to heroes and to creeds, to the exclusion of other views and other allegiances, other heroes and other creeds. Such is politics, which is both an emotional and a rational undertaking. What is worth avoiding, however – and too many of us are doing too little to avoid this – is reflexive, as opposed to reflective partisanship.

The point of America is not for all of us to agree. That is impossible and undesirable in any event. Autocracies are about total agreement. Or at least total submission. The American republic is founded on the notion that even the person with whom I most stridently disagree may have something to say worth hearing and heeding and that the only way I can figure out whether that’s the case is by listening to that person and by weighing the relative merits of what is said and then –only then – making up my mind.

The danger – and this is all too pervasive at the moment – lies in my reflexively dismissing a point made by a person simply because that person is the one making the point. That’s a foreclosure of reason. I’d argue that’s a sin because the human capacity for judgment – however flawed, however fallen – is the great gift that distinguishes us above the beasts of the field and the trees of the forest and the creatures of the sea. So I beg you, truly: Be reflective about our public life. Make up your mind based on facts, not alternative facts or alternative evidence.

Be open to the very real possibility that you might be wrong from time to time and people you thought were beyond redemption might be right.

I’ve learned alot about myself and others by hanging out with people whose social and political views are different from mine, so Meacham’s comments definitely resonated with me.

My view of Jon Meacham’s commencement address at Wake Forest University, May 2017


  1. My commencement speaker was Andy Rooney. His speech was great. Pointed out how all of us believed we now knew it all, whereas, in reality, most of us probably could not change a tire or fix a leaky faucet! And he was right!–Robert

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Ah, David Brooks. One of my favorites commentators. You were honored to bestow that honorary doctorate on him, David.

    There is a quote somewhere in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that sez to the effect that we use the scientific method to keep Mother Nature from fooling us into thinking we know something that we don’t really know. My dissertation advisor, a professor of geology, said it slightly differently, i.e., we are not out to prove we were right in our hypotheses, but to try to beat the devil out of our ideas to find out if we are wrong. I think the same should go for politics and other fields, i.e., we need to be our own worst critics rather than live in our little bubbles.

    Meacham nails it. I lately find myself reading the more thoughtful conservative columnists in the newspapers before I look at the liberal ones. Assuming I get to the liberal ones. Chances are, I know what the left is going to say and I want to hear what folks like Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, or Christina Hoff-Sommers say in response. There is nothing worse than self-imposed ideological insularity. And that certainly goes for the gun issue(s).

    Liked by 3 people

  3. […] Of course, understandings of what it means to cultivate humanity will differ among people with different moral/ethical/religious/philosophical points of view. But the very fact that Pincus used the language of “evolution, critical thinking, self-evaluation,” and “ethos” is significant in a day and age when too many people barricade themselves in their existing positions and refuse to be self-reflective or consider that they may be wrong. […]


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