Education, Friendship, and Dependence in First Year Law: A Reflection

Photo of Matti Thurlin

My mother and her partner flew into Toronto from Edmonton on February 28th. She was planning to visit me this spring, so I suggested that she come on the weekend coinciding with Bring Your Parents to Work Day, hosted by the First Generation Network, and also the Osgoode First Generation Family Day, hosted by the Student Success and Wellness team. Neither she nor my dad has university education. My mom started, and still runs, a business that conditioned the possibility of my undergrad. She worked so hard that I know complaining to her about 1L is not in my best interest. Without her effort, and her courage, I would not have a degree, and I would not be at Osgoode obtaining two more. So, that weekend, we celebrated this fact at the First Generation events. These were spaces in which we law students were called upon to acknowledge our existential dependence on our families; to recognize the unparalleled love inherent in their acts of sacrifice; and to acknowledge the radical sources of good in our lives. And we did.

Then we went back to school, like normal, except perhaps with our hearts beating more intently than before. For my part, my heart had swollen to paralyzing proportions, screaming so insistently that I had to voice it. Not necessarily because I had acknowledged my dependence during my life leading to Osgoode. Rather, I was glowing because I had realized, but not yet acknowledged, my dependence on those with whom I was now studying, arguing, and complaining everyday—those whose intelligence, care, work ethic, and unwavering sight on justice have, in demonstrable ways, formed my present self. My soul is, to its incalculable benefit, covered with the fingerprints of my colleagues. While I had not, until this point, said a public word about this fact, one truth is more curious: I had not devoted to it much private attention.

In my law school everydayness, several things show themselves to me as intrinsically valuable. Intelligence is one of them, obviously — arguing well, having a good memory for cases. Working hard is valuable, too. And so is being likeable to everyone. On reflection, though, I find these things intrinsically valuable only insofar as they are instrumental to my grades and, ultimately, career. That is to say, being smart, working hard, and being consistently likeable are not intrinsically valuable at all. For, to echo the Harvard philosopher Cornel West, there have been plenty of smart white supremacists. There have been many popular anti-Semites. Centuries of clever people who hate women. And these people have all worked exceedingly hard at committing murder. My unreflective conception of the good, walking through Gowlings Hall, thinking as far as grades, is therefore profoundly and dangerously misleading. What’s valuable intrinsically is not that I achieve, but what I seek to achieve. And not everything I may seek to achieve has value. So I had better be asking myself why I am pursuing grades, asking myself about my coveted career’s point, if I have any interest in being decent. If I do not ask these things, then because I am too fallible, too corruptible, too human, I will become ripe for recruitment into the world of, in the words of David Foster Wallace, money, men, and power. The world which values that it achieves, while remaining blind to human suffering — usually of its own hand.

This point, while unbelievably important, is actually tangential. My law school everydayness conceals at least two other realities. The first is my life’s education, of which my professional education is a subset. I am a human being first, and a law student second. If what I value is achievement in law school, period, without interrogating the end to which I am working, then I have blinded myself to my human education. Aspects of my human education include: navigating human-to-human relationships, wherein love and respect are the only universal currency; practicing a work ethic, which is different from working to death; practicing empathy; having courage to do the right thing; crying if I am sad; crying if I am joyful; and, indeed, deciding on those things for which I am willing to die—because time spent is life given. My life’s education, then, is a constant lecture about what to value and how best to live, and I can pay more or less attention to it. But I am very busy these days. So I miss things.

Thankfully, the second reality is that some of my greatest life teachers are sitting around me right now, in my law school everydayness, typing or reading in the library. Their greatness is apparent when, instead of regarding them as comparators to overcome, I listen to their words, their challenges, and am seized by them. These challenges are often non-verbal. Sometimes, I am challenged merely by their existence. Their sheer integrity, wisdom, resilience, and authenticity make a penetrating claim upon me to confront my own human project. Other times, I am held explicitly to account. This may be on the TTC home, when I am tired and levelling an unjust critique of my day. It may be during a lunch debate in the JCR, which I entered a little too certain about R v Creighton. Or it may be late at night, when I feel completely worthless and fraudulent, but have received an act of care so piercing and necessary as to appear clairvoyant: a text reminding me to love myself when I have, indeed, forgotten.

Listening to my life’s lecture is, in many ways, therefore a matter of recognizing my dependence on my friends and colleagues. The First Generation events provide a space — if you are first generation — in which to do this, respecting those on whom we depended before law school. (To be sure, we often depend on those same people, in the same way, during law school; but the dependence began before.) How might I create a similar space, within my law school everydayness, respecting my new friends and colleagues?

Following an introduction in which he is identified with his accolades — which are numerous — Cornel West begins lecturing by calling out those in the audience for whom he has overwhelming love and respect. Then, he says: “I am who I am because somebody loved me; because somebody cared for me; because somebody targeted me.” These acknowledgements take nearly ten minutes altogether. He doesn’t seem to care that he only has an hour to lecture his material. He makes time to acknowledge his people directly, despite the time crunch, despite academic formality, and despite his position as the “knower” in the room. If he can make time, why can’t I?

About the Author: Matti Thurlin is a law and philosophy student at Osgoode Hall Law School. He is a passionate ambassador for the First Generation Network (FGN), and currently sits on the executive team for the FGN’s Osgoode Hall chapter. This blog post was originally written for Osgoode Hall’s student newspaper, Obiter Dicta, found here.