What You Get Depends On What You Do

17 Dec

One of the fundamental truths of education is that what you get out of it depends on what you put in. If you study hard, read the background material, ask intelligent questions, turn in your assignments and take your exams seriously, you will probably do well. On the other hand, if you don’t attend half your classes, don’t bother to read the textbooks, don’t sit the exams and spend far too much time coming up with excuses for the previous three, you probably won’t do very well.

In short, education rewards those who actually work.

I mention all this because the latest piece of manufactured outrage on the internet is the decision by some American colleges to allow law students (specifically, ‘people of colour’) to delay their exams, as a result of being ‘traumatised’ by the recent events in Ferguson. Or, apparently, from spending the time they should have been studying protesting against said events in Ferguson.

This has spread out of hand, with suggestions that ‘people of colour’ should not be failed, even if they fail. (On the other hand, at least one university professor has shot the idea down flat, for which he deserves congratulations.) Apparently, being able to claim one has been ‘traumatised’ is sufficient to merit rewards one hasn’t earned. (I won’t get into the racism shown by some of the people who think this is actually a good idea.)

I’ve been hearing a lot of silliness recently, but I believe this one takes the cake.

Let me be blunt. Time management is important. If you don’t learn to manage your time, you probably won’t get very far in life – particularly as a lawyer. And, unless American higher education is very different from British higher education, students are not whipped into classrooms, chained to desks and told there will be no bread and water until they’ve produced a word-perfect essay. You are expected to act like grown-ups and manage your own time.

If you have spent the last five months prior to the exams willingly doing something – anything – other than preparing for the exam, you will probably fail. And that will be your choice. Why, exactly, should you be rewarded for not doing the work, for not putting in the effort, while other hard-working students are struggling to get passing grades? And what is the value of the grades (not just yours, but your classmates) when they have not been won fairly?

But there is another point, after this. Legal work is not exactly stress-free. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t offer specifics, but I’m pretty sure there will be times where you will have to do plenty of research, work to a very tight deadline and think on your feet. Not to mention encountering pointy-haired bosses, clients who will expect you to lie, cheat and steal on your behalf, bad-tempered judges, juries made up of clear-sighted people and outsiders who think the official legal uniform should be something in stripes, if only to save time.

If you are traumatised by something that happened several months ago, you are probably not going to make it as a lawyer. The real world is rarely inclined to coddle people.

And if you believe that someone should be judged guilty BEFORE holding the trial, you probably shouldn’t be in law in the first place.

This should be enough. But there’s one further point, raised by Mike Williamson. Who in their right mind would want to hire a lawyer who couldn’t handle this to represent their interests?

There are such things as real excuses. Students can get into accidents that leave them unable to complete the year or take their exams, forcing them to retake the entire year. They could become ill. Or they might be called away to attend a funeral, or a wedding, or … well, whatever. These are valid excuses.

But choosing to spend time protesting instead of studying, or being unable to cope with a Grand Jury’s decision, is not.

The world is not fair. Chances are that just about everyone will have to endure personal problems that they will struggle to overcome. Coddling students now, students who are effectively adults, will only hamper them in the long term.

And if people don’t think much of lawyers anyway, this is not going to help.

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2 Responses to “What You Get Depends On What You Do”

  1. jkelley742 December 18, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    As a teacher in a community college I find this applies to many of today’s students. Somehow they feel they are entitled to an education with no effort on their part. This is not all students and the attitude appears in degrees. However, some are very talented and when they refuse to be engaged it is discouraging to the teacher. I believe this is rooted in the “nobody lost” attitude. In life there are winners and losers, those not engaged will be the losers.

  2. Barb Caffrey December 24, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Chris, if the law students were upset about the legal system and wanted to make a difference in that, they need to be studying in school and finding ways the legal system should be doing something better or more life-affirming.

    I’ve been reading a book by Ken Johnson on retributive justice (I plan to review it at Shiny Book Review soon), and it’s quite interesting. Ken’s contention is that too much of our justice system does not actually help victims. Instead, it is punitive only, and often teaches minor criminals to become bigger criminals (too many minor things are lumped in with bigger crimes; I saw that with the homeless kid I tried to help a while back). Ken believes justice should be retributive instead — teach the offender how not to offend, make sure he pays for his crimes, but do so in a way that actually helps the victim while hopefully getting that offender into a better pattern or system of life.

    I may not be explaining this very well (it’s one reason why I’ve delayed this review for a few weeks, as I want to make absolutely sure what I’m talking about before I write something over at SBR). But I think it’s important, and I think if those law students wanted to discuss retributive justice rather than punitive injustice (as we’ve seen in several cases, including the shooting of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee — the man was sleeping on a park bench and was mentally ill, and was no threat to anyone. Didn’t have a weapon, and the policeman in question was fired, but the grand jury still did not indict despite the policeman shooting the unarmed, mentally ill Hamilton over ten times and then claiming that PTSD led him to do it.), they first need to study and pass their exams. Then they need to think about retributive justice and how to bring it about, which would be a positive change coming from a series of negative, highly inflammatory events (including the unnecessary and completely unjust shooting of Dontre Hamilton).

    In other words, Chris, I agree with you. (And Mad Mike.) And if the law students are that upset, they need to take a semester or two off and then return to their studies…give ’em incompletes, if necessary, but make ’em take time off (don’t let ’em return next semester, say; let them go work in the low-income Legal Aid places as helpers for six months before they can return, as that actually _would_ be helping those who desperately need help and would be much more socially just, besides).

    I know that’s a totally different solution than what I’ve heard in the media. It’s not Mad Mike’s solution either, I don’t think; it’s certainly not yours. But maybe it would be sensible — these people would actually be working with those who do need help, who are good people but are poor and have very few options and need good legal advice — and maybe would get a better handle on how to help people rather than how to be outraged. (I don’t blame them for the outrage, mind. I am outraged myself over the shooting of Dontre Hamilton and the grand jury’s refusal to indict the officer after the man, Christopher Manney, was actually — and justly — fired. But the outrage does nothing if they don’t _apply_ it.)

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