What Makes America Great: Mistakes

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Though everyone—except, perhaps, some politicians—beat themselves up over errors, America wouldn't be what it is without the "radical" willingness to accept mistakes. That, at least, is the contention of Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong and guest writer at The New York Times. She argues that from the founding of America, its government and its institutions have been uniquely constructed to expect and tolerate human fallibility. Instead of demanding perfection, we are "a country made great by disagreement and error."

She explains:

America's founders understood that all of us, including our leaders, are fallible; that errors are inevitable; and that mistakes can't always be recognized as such in the moment. As a result, they realized, a stable nation must not seek to eliminate mistakes but strive to tolerate them. Almost all the founding principles of democracy - freedom of religion, freedom of speech, direct elections, political parties - reflect this commitment. ...

This, then, is our national heritage. The United States was founded on a then-radical and still radically insightful acceptance of error, and we would do well to embrace those roots. Consider the words spoken by Benjamin Franklin just before he appended his name to the most famous piece of parchment in American history. "I confess there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve," Franklin said, "but I am not sure that I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise."

No words could have been more appropriate for the founding of our nation. And no attitude toward error, I contend, could be more truly patriotic.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.