Monday, January 17, 2022
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Beginning of a New Semester
I begin teaching again on Wednesday. The past few weeks have been occupied with course preparation as well as catching up on editing, writing, and other tasks abandoned during a month+ focused on the grading period, attentiveness to a downturn in my dad's health, Christmas, a nasty cold, and intensive physical therapy. As I have focused on the spring semester, I continue to be concerned about helping to teach my students critical and intensive thinking, in and outside legal reasoning. On this day honoring the life and many legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am inspired in my work by this passage from his writing--specifically, Chapter 1 of Strength to Love (1963; Pocket Book ed. 1964):
. . . The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.
Who doubts that this toughness is one of man's greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
The last three sentences of this quote are especially meaningful to me. The world is full of "easy answers and half-baked solutions." I laugh when a state or federal legislator sends me survey asking me, e.g., whether I support the taxation of X (as one once did). How can I answer that question (except in a knee jerk or heuristic-driven process) if I do not know other things first (including whether something else may be taxed instead or whether services may be cut)? And I am pained when students rely on commercial case briefs and caselaw summaries rather than personally digesting and dissecting the text of even a case excerpt in a casebook. Suffice it to say, it is difficult to have an in-depth or fully engaged conversation with a student who has not read and thought through the key elements of a particular judicial opinion.
Dr. King may be right that there are relatively few folks "who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking." But my hope is that many of those who do are and will continue to be lawyers (who lead in our society both in and outside the profession) and that at least a few of those lawyers will have been my students. I know other law faculty that feel the same way.
Encouraging law students to engage with the legal education process in a way that is productive to willing engagement with "hard, solid thinking" is certainly not easy when easy-to-read summary resources are widely available. But an investment in that encouragement is worth the time and energy, in my view. Lawyers can best fulfill their professional promise and responsibility by thinking in a way that is "sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false."
So, here's to the new semester. I start with renewed energy to work with my students to get them what they need to succeed in and beyond law school, including by motivating each of them to develop a "sharp and penetrating" mind--a "tough mind." Sustaining that type of energy in a pandemic-infused, understaffed world will surely be a challenge. But I am up for it! I wish all law professors well in their pursuit of effective teaching.