The Importance of Being Learned
This article was written by Kaustav Saha (Batch of 2016).
I recall Professor Nandimath using a phrase more than once during our orientation ceremony, with all us wide-eyed wee little first years listening in awe to how we were becoming part of an intellectually elite institution: Academic rigour. It lies at the very core of our existence at Law School. Four projects, eight exams, three months. Really hits you like a whirlwind when you first get here. Add to that the constant reminders of the standards you’re expected to uphold and how they’re falling. Throw in the challenges of mooting, debating, writing publishable papers, etc. for good measure. Could it be anything but obvious that our lives here are brimming with academic rigour? Actually, it couldn’t be anything but wrong. Blatantly wrong.
Lawyers rely so often on distinctions for their bread and butter, so let’s make one here. A packed schedule does not constitute academic rigour. The hours in a day you spend engaged in something Law School has thrown at you does not determine how academically rigorous your life is. The idea I’m proposing is simple: quality, not quantity. How many of your courses are challenging you intellectually? Do you look back over a period of time and think to yourself: Man, my thought process on this issue or general way of thinking has become so much more mature? Let me be clear at the outset: I do not wish to undermine the challenges we face at first trying to get used to this crazy schedule and mad rat race. But once the dust has settled, it’s good to take a clearer look and ask questions such as the above. Of course, you’re entitled to ask: why is this question even important? Because it helps us think about why we are here in the first place.
Terry Eagleton recently wrote a devastating critique of the modern university where he argued, in essence, that education in the UK has become way too commodified, and that the university as a center of critique has ceased to exist in the face of capitalist forces. He says that we are in the age of the ‘entrepreneurial university’ that values education only for the contribution it makes to the marketplace. While the point I am making does not delve nearly as deep, I am troubled by what passes for learning at Law School today. One can hear complaints on two seemingly contradictory fronts: one, that our learning is not of enough ‘practical relevance’, and two, that even in courses where the syllabus is not trite and meaningless, we do not explore the nuances that make the subject interesting. It is these nuances and their centrality to the course that constitute academic rigour. The first question is better suited to professional treatment than my own naïve speculation, so I will confine myself to the second. And my answer to it is this: if Law School isn’t giving you academic rigour, take it for yourself.
I’ll be blunt: the system sucks. As much as The Lonely Island said it does. The ‘rigour’ of the institution is killing the academic spirit and not strengthening it. To be sure, a host of other factors are responsible. We have many more distractions than the legendary Law School-ites of yore who have achieved spectacular things in life. And let’s not get the wrong idea here: the spirit of inquiry does not require us to become bookworms who leave the library only to forage for food. That said, the extent to which curiosity and a desire to learn are noticeably absent in this institution is alarming to say the least.
As a member of Stud Ad for the last three years, and someone taking an interest in its activities for all my time in Law School, I have seen symposia on topics ranging from the Takeover Code to refugee law. Diverse as these sessions may have been, they had one thing in common: they saw a woefully low turnout of students from Law School. Very recently, the dean of Cornell Law School delivered a lecture on property law that was attended by six people, three of them being faculty members. This does not prove that there are no more genuinely interested people. They may have had unavoidable reasons like project submissions that kept them from attending. After all, rigour rears its ugly head far too often. But even factoring this in, it does show a considerable amount of apathy among our student body. It is precisely this apathy which I believe needs a cure, and it is not an insurmountable problem.
The bottom line is this: do not let the aforementioned sucky system ruin the academic experience that you can potentially have. We are all fortunate to have a relatively smart group of peers, an excellent library and enviable connections that enable us to get the likes of Noah Feldman to deliver lectures here. Use this wisely and you stand to gain an unimaginable amount. One thing we need to bear in mind closely is that this is primarily a vocational degree programme. Therefore, you approach the law with a limited knowledge base and worldview as it is. Do not be so caught up in working the system, getting your grades and securing your future that you ignore why you are here in the present. Before trying to score a publication for the piece on cyber crimes you just wrote, stop a while and consider how much criminal law you’ve read. It takes years of study and research to write meaningfully on any subject, and it is absurd to panic if you haven’t done so in two or three years of Law School. A related problem is time management. Among those of you who’ve read this far, a sizeable proportion will be thinking “This is all well and good, but we simply don’t have the time.” Trust me, you do. Our supposedly rigorous system can be worked with surprisingly few hours devoted to it. One way to make time is by not treating extra reading as a luxury that you will get to if you have spare time, but viewing it as part of your schedule: an essential activity without which you will become brain dead.
Eagleton is right when he says that in today’s knowledge economy, pharmacists are likely to be more valued than phenomenologists. But hell, if you want to study phenomenology, go ahead and do it. The Great Valuer is not sizing you up with his calculator. Not just yet.
Terry Eagleton, The Slow Death of the University.
The Lonely Island, Threw it on the Ground.