The Importance of Dumb Mistakes in College
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Not so much afterward, when I got driven downtown in handcuffs for spray-painting “Corporate Deathburgers” across a McDonald’s.
I earned myself a long night in jail for my lack of judgment. But my family and friends — and perhaps most important, my college, the University of Michigan — never learned about the episode (until now). Because in 1985, a college student could get a little self-righteous, make a bad decision, face consequences and then go home, having learned a “valuable lesson.”
These days I work as the senior communications officer at another college, where I spend a healthy fraction of my time dealing with students who’ve made mistakes of their own. I recognize myself in them: intellectually adventurous, skeptical, newly aware of life’s injustices. They’re also different from me in many ways: less Grateful Dead and Dead Kennedys, much more technology.
That’s the important bit. Because for all of the supposed liberating power of their digital devices, they might as well be wearing ankle monitors. Technological connectedness has made it much harder for them to make mistakes and learn from them.
Today’s students live their lives so publicly — through the technology we provide them without training — that much simpler errors than mine earn them the wrath of the entire internet.
Usually, the outrage is over things they say, for example a campus newspaper editorial that grapples with balancing free speech and appropriate behavior. That’s a quandary that has occupied American legal theorists since the founding of the country. It’s certainly one any young citizen should think through.
But last year, when Wellesley’s student paper ran an editorial wrestling with this same idea — and advocating limits on hate speech — it was widely read and criticized in the media as if it were enormously consequential.
Were the authors’ arguments entirely mature and well reasoned? No. But students deserve the chance to try out ideas. When they do, sometimes they’re going to botch it — sometimes spectacularly. And that’s why we have learning spaces.
Thirty years ago, college students could have tried out radical ideas about limiting free speech in print. The results might have been simplistic or doctrinaire. But readership would have been largely restricted to campus, and the paper would have been in circulation for only a day or two.
In this climate, there is little room for students to experiment and screw up. We seem to expect them to arrive at school fully formed. When they let us down by being just what they are — young humans — we shame them.
My dearest Shosh and Jaialai:
I demand better of you because I want you to be better. I do that because I care. You are my sons.
Don’t mistake the lack of constructive criticism and the lack of expectations from others as love. It simply means they don’t care enough to invest their time in you to help you grow and become better. False friends often exhibit such behaviors. They heap praise on you when things are going well, but abandon you when things get difficult. Don’t waste your time with the likes of them.
You have but one life to live, so I want you to embrace it! Dare to try new things. Be bold in your efforts, not timid. If you are going to try, why not do it with gusto? Mistakes will be made. But, who cares? So long as you have thought through the consequences of your actions, no one is hurt, and there are no lasting adverse effects from the mistake, then embrace the lesson learned from that mistake. That’s how you grow and expand your horizons!!!!
Timid, fearful, and inferior people often tell you to stick to what is known, tried, and true. But, if no one explores beyond the confines of existing life and knowledge, where would human beings, as a species, be? There would be no new discovery. There would be no expansion of territory. There would only be staleness and death as we deplete known resources from over-use, over-populate the small territory into which we were born, degrade the land from over-use and over-population, etc.
No, don’t heed the nay-sayers. Hear them and thank them for their counsel, but determine for yourself the wisdom of a certain course of action.
Be you. Be the best you. Dare to try new things and to experience the beautiful things in life.
All my loves, always,