Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Becoming Educated

What does it mean to be educated?  Tara Westover describes education as a form of self-creation.  Educated persons, she suggests, open themselves up to many different points of view, deepen their empathy, embrace doubt, and participate actively in their own learning.

In case you don't follow the best-seller lists, Westover is the author of the 2018 memoir Educated,  Reared on a remote mountain in southeast Idaho as the youngest child of survivalist parents who opposed not only "government schools" but also any type of formal education for their daughter, she worked in the kitchen with her herbalist mother and in the junkyard with an increasingly paranoid father and an abusive older brother.  Westover gradually came to yearn for an education and taught herself enough to earn an ACT score good enough to enter Brigham Young University.  While her first months in the classroom were filled with failure and missteps, her intellectual curiosity propelled her forward and brought mentors who encouraged her to go beyond her self-imposed bounds.  After graduating from Brigham Young University, she earned a Masters of Philosophy and then a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as becoming a visiting fellow at Harvard University.

Last night Westover came to our university and delivered an electrifying address to a standing-room only crowd.  The feeling of community in the room was intense: some audience members had grown up in the same county as Westover or had met members of her family through the years.  Although few if any came from such extreme circumstances, many could relate to her experience of trying to maintain loving relationships while breaking free of family expectations that denigrated the value of higher education. 

Westover spoke movingly of the role of passion in learning.  "I'm a believer in following what you care about," she told the crowd.  The first time she ever thought about formal schooling, she said, was when she listened to the recording of an opera.  Although she was already a gifted singer, she instinctively recognized operatic singing as something beyond what she had experienced, something that would require not only talent but also years of disciplined learning to master.  While her passion for music was what initially prompted her to go to college, she said, once her intellectual curiosity was aroused, it took her in other directions, first to politics and history, then to intellectual history.  "You don't know where someone's passion will take them," she said, "but no passion will take them nowhere."

In an era when so much emphasis is put on measurable results such as grades, bar passage results, and job placement statistics, it's easy to dismiss Westover's view of education as a romantic vision suitable only for the gifted few.  But her vision of the educated person is exactly what we want and expect a good lawyer to be -- an engaged self-learner with drive, empathy, and curiosity, a person who maintains an open mind even when surrounded by others rigid in their certainty. 

Unfortunately, most of us have seen too many students during the course of law school shift their focus from intellectual curiosity to grade point average, from passionate interest to resume building.  Sadly, in transforming their mindset to what they think is a more realistic outlook, these students lose both what brought them to law in the first place and what will make law a worthwhile endeavor for the rest of their careers.

While there's no magic bullet to prevent this devolution, consistently modeling "ASPish" behaviors may help.  It's vital, of course, to consciously show our our own passion for learning, for law, and for our personal calling in legal education.  For example, in his Property syllabus, my colleague and mentor D. Benjamin Beard wrote as his first course objective, "I expect you to care as passionately about your learning as I do."  (In true ASP fashion, I borrowed this message to put into my own syllabus.)  In addition, in our classrooms, individual meetings, and materials, we can consistently encourage our students to consider their core values and the good they hope to accomplish by mastering law.  (Paula Franzese's A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student has become a wonderful resource for me in encouraging this mindset.)  Finally, I believe it's critical for all of us in legal education to openly honor the wide panoply of positive choices our graduates can make as they enter their careers.  Students can begin to doubt their own passions when they receive overt or subliminal messages that certain types of practice are more worthy than others.  The student with a passion for helping children cannot help but feel denigrated in an atmosphere that only celebrates landing "BigLaw" jobs; the person with a transactional bent can have their choices derailed in an atmosphere that considers litigation to be the pinnacle of practice.  So as we commend our own interests (Criminal defense rocks!  Small-town lawyers hold rural communities together!), let's not forget to openly value the many different ways lawyers serve others by pursuing their own passions.  (Nancy Luebbert)

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