Fallibility: Why It’s So Easy To Be Dumb

One of the important lessons professionals need to learn is how to reconcile the need for confidence in one’s expertise with the need to be mindful about human fallibility.  This is a life skill we cultivate throughout our careers.  In my view, learning to think “contextually” about professional life, calls upon learners to accept the inevitability of both human wisdom, and human fallibility, while avoiding the twin hazards of cynicism and hopelessness.

A decade or so ago, I talked by phone with a man who had served in many university leadership roles, including being the dean of three distinguished schools of education.  At the time, I was recovering from the stress and strain of a big structural  reorganization in my own College.  It was all over — all but the pain and loss that some of our faculty members felt, including me. We had helped to achieve the administrators’ goals while losing a lot of time that should have gone to promoting our own careers.  As a relatively new professor of education, I was troubled by what had happened, and bewildered by some of the questionable decisions administrators had made.

My distinguished colleague listened patiently, and then said something that proved to be something of a gift.

He said, “Well, I don’t know Jan. All I can say is that it’s just so easy to be dumb.”  He went on to give a couple of examples of decisions he had made in his role as a college dean that turned out badly because he just hadn’t seen the whole picture, or made faulty assumptions.

Here was someone whom I greatly admired, one of the brightest people I knew summing things up in a way that helped me accept my professional calamity and move on to higher ground.  It’s so easy to be dumb — an insight from someone who drew on his own wisdom to help a novice see things from a different point of view.  Useful insights are gifts, and anthropologically speaking, gifts circulate — they are passed along from one person to another, perhaps also from one field to another.   –Edprof

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