Law in Contemporary Society

Applying a Lesson Learned as a Teacher

-- By JacquelynHehir - 27 Feb 2010

Starting with what I know: the essential quality of a good teacher

The best teachers start with the assumption that they are responsible for their students' failures. Although that probably sounds intuitive to a non-teacher, it is the hardest part of the job. Failure often seems inevitable, and there are ample excuses and scapegoats: the facility, the technology, the materials, the curriculum, the administration, the parents, the generation, the apathy. The list goes on. Placing blame is so much easier than taking responsibility, and is the default reaction of many educators.

Yet, teachers who do take responsibility have a huge advantage over those who do not: they can change things. This makes them better teachers. Teachers who blame external forces, even if they undoubtedly affect student achievement, foreclose rather than facilitate change. The best teachers focus on what they can control rather than what they can't. They shrug off the passivity of the finger-pointers, and do what is necessary to help their students succeed, no matter what the context. They understand that if their students fail, so do they.

Application to the world at large

As intuitive as it is that teachers should take responsibility for their students' failures, people seem to find it harder to accept the parallel and equally true concept that citizens should take responsibility for their society's failures. Each of us, simply by existing in this world, is complicit in our society's mistakes. Many of us do not acknowledge this, preferring to take the excuse-and-scapegoat route. Granted, citizens cannot take responsibility for everything. There are just too many battles that need to be fought, and sainthood is hard to come by. Inability to fix every problem, however, is not an excuse to do nothing.

John Brown took responsibility for American slavery. To an outside observer, there is no clear reason why he did this. He was not a rich man, he was not a politician, and he was not a slave owner; there was no direct link between his existence and the perpetuation of slavery. Nobody would have found him morally culpable if he simply spoke out against slavery when appropriate, and otherwise lived out his life quietly.

Yet instead, he acted. He claimed that "the cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here." But those cries were heard by thousands of people, many who did nothing, many who pretended to do something, many who made a lot of noise about how something should be done, and many who made excuses for why they could not do anything. So it could not have been solely those cries that prompted John Brown to act. Instead he made slavery his problem, his responsibility. Only then did he have the tools to make a difference.

Avoiding the fate of Stack

Taking responsibility is only the first step. A teacher may understand that she is the one who has the ability to help her students succeed and still do nothing. Or she may do something harmful, or not tailor her actions to the correct goal. A. Joseph Stack fought against the injustices he perceived, but chose the wrong method. He thought that his act would inspire people to "wake up." This is a laudable goal, but as Brown recognized, one that is unlikely to be met by the killing of innocents. Brown noted that he did not wish for his men to be mistaken for those who "had no regard for life and property, nor any feelings of humanity."

That feeling of humanity separates the effective methods from the poor ones. Stack's actions killed a man. Stack was not acting in self-defense. Vernan Hunter's death was not humane. Killing others who are trapped in the same web of frustration and stolen autonomy will never further a cause, and is likely to turn potential supporters against you. This was Stack's mistake.

Application to a legal career

The question remains: how can lawyers take responsibility in their careers? Robinson points out that "a real lawyer knows how to take care of a legal problem." Maybe the first step is to recognize that a lawyer can take care of legal problems, and when legal problems go unsolved, it is our fault. We, through luck or riches, will become lawyers; this responsibility is ours.

But how do we define legal problems? A teacher has the luxury of a few core goals, which are generally unassailable. Children should be taught to read and solve math problems, and by measuring those abilities, teachers also measure their success. There are certainly other goals that a teacher may set, which may be easier to challenge, but reading, writing, and arithmetic, as the saying goes, are fundamental.

Defining legal goals is more complicated. For example, criminal prosecutors can solve problems by ensuring punishment for those who commit crimes, but the criminal defender is also working to solve the problem of a system that is not punishing crimes as much as it is punishing race and class. Can these goals be reconciled?

Yes, they can. The key is to color our choices with "feelings of humanity," not simply by avoiding murder, but by making legal choices with empathy and respect for all. We must take responsibility for our careers, and accept that if our choices cause suffering, we have failed. As a good teacher knows, that failure is avoidable, and it can be remedied. The choice is ours.


As with your second paper, your argument here is very strong. Your moves are reasoned and logical, and I found myself agreeing with you at each step. I appreciate your reading of both John Brown and Stack, and I think you've fleshed out the difference in their approaches very effectively. I might call Stack's failure a failure of empathy, but that's just me. Heh. I think this failure happens most often when someone's personal hurts blind them to the rights and needs and entitlements of the rest of the world. Stack felt personally attacked, which is another way in which he is different from John Brown. Brown internalized the wrongs of slavery and made them his responsibility, but he took up arms on behalf of others, not to vindicate some wrong against himself. Maybe this difference can also help us, as lawyers, to remember to leave our egos out of it as much as possible, and when we do feel wronged, to not lose our powers of empathy. I find this difficult; I don't think I'm the only one. You have 86 words to play with (not much, I know) if you feel like exploring that idea at all.

I felt like the best way to contribute was to make some language and style tweaks here and there, so I've "rewritten" (if you can call it a that) and you are free, as always, to abandon all changes (but not all hope).

-- Caroline


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r5 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:14 - IanSullivan
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