Monday, November 7, 2005

Parallel Lines May Meet at Infinity, but I Don't Like It One Bit

One of our contributing editors, Mario Mainero, is a master of all things mathematical.  In a recent email exchange with Mario, I took the opportunity to get something off my chest that has been there for thirty years:  parallel lines most definitely do not meet at infinity, despite mathematicians' claims to the contrary.  In the first place, parallel lines by definition do not intersect; in the second, infinity is not a place, so nobody meets there.  Mario didn't buy my rationale; and because thirty years ago I could tell my calculus teacher wasn't buying it either, I dropped the class and stuck with Shakespeare.  I get Iago.

Of course, "I get Iago" was always the real issue.  I know the mathematicians are right.  It was my inability to get my mind around intersecting parallel lines and countless other such concepts that ended my mathematical aspirations; and it was "I get Iago" that made an English teacher out of me. 

I left calculus with the distinct sense that I just wasn't wired for higher-level mathematical theory.  But I sometimes wonder today whether I bailed too quickly back then.  Maybe the wiring is there, but I just wasn't up to fighting through the fog when I was 18.

Many of our students are likely wrestling with a similar problem just about now.  As a legal writing teacher, I routinely encounter students who just cannot get their minds around the ambiguity that permeates the field of law.  They seem to have a highly developed sense of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood.  Two opposite but equally reasonable answers to the same question are like intersecting parallel lines for them; it just doesn't square with how the world is supposed to work. 

So they resist the ambiguity, argue around it, ignore its implications, and generally rage against its existence.  That approach can be fatal in law school, as their first battery of law school finals is about to make clear.  For many of them, some Iago is about to look like a pretty good old friend.

We need to make sure they don't bail too quickly, don't conclude that they "just aren't wired" for law.  After all, we need lawyers with a strong sense of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood.  Those students, though today they struggle with ambiguity, will one day be powerful advocates for justice -- if they can just hang in there and face down their present discomfort.

All students bring with them obstacles to learning the law; and most of those obstacles can be overcome with some guidance, some patience, and some determination.  This is a good time of year to make certain our first-year students are moving beyond a need for clear answers to complex questions, are becoming comfortable with finding the best answers from among many genuinely reasonable possibilities, are overcoming the obstacle of wanting the law to be a simple thing in a simple world. 

Some students, of course, revel in the ambiguity and refuse to find any answer; theirs is a different problem.  The ones I am talking about today are those who are in danger of entering their exams with a stubborn fixation on giving the professor the "right" answer.  The ones I am talking about today are -- perhaps more importantly -- those who are in danger of giving up the fight because "they just aren't wired for law."  They need to give themselves a genuine chance to find out that "I get Iago" is perfectly compatible with intersecting parallel lines.  (DBW)

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