Right or Wrong
I was a student leader and frequently gave public addresses on the politics of the hour. I vividly remember in the fall of ’67, my senior year, being allowed to speak at a Faculty Senate meeting, which I guess was quite unusual in those days, to give students a forum. I remember speaking on behalf of an organization of students that was pressing the faculty to support a strike of some sort, a position that seemed like a long shot for the faculty to take.
I remember thinking I did well. I was nervous, addressing a faculty forum for the first time. The person after me was Edgar Z. Friedenberg, who spoke in his inimitable way—very eloquently, very powerfully, and totally against the position I had just advocated. The faculty ultimately adopted Edgar’s position.
When I got home I was deeply depressed. The depression was not over the faculty not doing what I had bid; that was expected. It was over the fact that Friedenberg had disagreed with me, and I continued to believe I was right. I was very depressed because I couldn’t make sense of that. And he was a rather good friend.
I went and found him and he could immediately read my face. I said, “You are the smartest person I’ve ever met. And I can’t accept the fact that we don’t agree.” He looked at me and grabbed my arm and he said, “Never, never ever confuse being intelligent with being right!”
It was a transforming remark—because it freed me. I felt so much better. He was saying very clearly that he’s not promising he’s right when he speaks and doesn’t want to be held to that standard. That helped me so much throughout my life—to listen carefully and not be arrogant. Not to agree with somebody just because I thought they were brighter than me. But to listen carefully to their reasoning and their arguments and to independently come to my own conclusion.
That was a wonderful message to give a young kid.
Martin Guggenheim is a professor at NYU Law School. He graduated from the UB Faculty of Social Sciences in 1968.