How to make surfboards: a checklist for our future graduates

by: in Law

“What kind of skills do we want our graduates to have?” was the main topic of discussion during a recent staff meeting, which got me thinking.

As the faculty of law, perhaps the “right” answer would entail something along the lines of: “Our graduates need to be capable of arguing logically, writing eloquently, and deciphering complex legal texts while comprehending the legislative intent behind them and their societal implications.”  Not only would such an answer have been rather generic, but it definitely would have been a run-on sentence.

If I was to dig a bit deeper – in a quixotic attempt to answer the question without succumbing to even more superficialities – perhaps I could have mustered a list of substantive skills that our “model graduate” would ideally possess: For example, I could have suggested that our law school graduates be able to describe how freedom to contract has evolved over the centuries, elaborate on the obstacles and risks associated with free movement of people in the EU, how the rule of law must enable and protect our fundamental rights, and so on.

Compiling such a list, however extensive, would inevitably be incomplete and would most likely solicit criticisms due to its various omissions. Moreover, it is worth noting here – in the immortalized words of the rock legend Frank Zappa – that information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. While we could be satisfied – just for the sake of argument – with a graduate who has accumulated all of the skills from our prix fixe curriculum, can we be truly proud of our graduates simply because they can distinguish consideration from causa or regurgitate some other seemingly arbitrary fact that we – the faculty – have deemed important for one reason or another?  

To paraphrase Hume – who wrote “be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man” – it is one thing to demand of our (male and female) graduates to develop some substantive understanding of the law; but perhaps more importantly, we must also educate our students – during their formative years – to be civically engaged and to become difference-makers capable of actually using their knowledge for some societal benefit. In order for us to nurture and facilitate this type of growth and transformation, we must not only pay attention to the “subject matter specific skills” that our faculty is offering, but also look at the question from a more holistic, human perspective. Though incomplete and perhaps overly generalized as any other list of this sort, here are my two cents on the matter: A checklist of what an ideal graduate would have acquired or experienced during their studies at our faculty.  

  1. Ignited sense of purpose: Attending a University should be synonymous with exploring one’s boundaries, accumulating experiences, and – as cliché as it sounds – finding oneself. For the students that means discovering what their “thing” is (or perhaps what it’s not). The key in this process is for the students to continuously ask the questions: “do I really like what I am doing?” and “is there a reason why I am doing this?” If the answers to both questions are in the negative, they ought to reassess their life trajectory regardless of the sunk costs. As everything worth doing in life will eventually require some dedication and sacrifice, our students might as well invest their time and effort into something that resonates with them. Having a sense of purpose, or something that they are passionate about, will equip our students with the strength to persevere when the going gets tough.
  2. Discovered potentials and limitations: Only by being presented with various challenges, can our students come to realize their capabilities (and their limitations). Even when they fail to achieve a certain goal, they ought to have internalized the mantra by their graduation that dealing with adversity is an opportunity for growth in disguise. A college education should forge a firm belief within the students that their ideas and actions are capable of making changes in their environment. Yet, at the same time, we must also teach them to have a sense of serenity when confronted with insurmountable obstacles that they simply cannot overcome no matter how much effort they exhaust. The faculty must also train the students to differentiate between the things that they can change and the things that they cannot (at least presently). As Solomon ibn Gabirol once wrote, and later paraphrased by the American theologist Reinhold Niebuhr into what is now popularly referred to as the Serenity prayer, “at the head of all understanding is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”
  3. Built resilience: In the process of discovering their sense of purpose and untapping their potentials, our students will have to learn to be resilient and to cope with the inevitable setbacks that they will be presented with. Bouncing back after facing such adversity is a process that can be facilitated by accepting what one is capable of (as noted above) and also by having a sense of perspective. With regards to the latter, Dutch philosopher Spinoza coined the phrase sub specie aeternitatis or to look at everything under the aspect of eternity. Many of the problems that we think we are burdened with, pales in comparison when we realize our place in the universe and eternity as a frame of reference. Perhaps more practically, the pioneering inventor, Thomas Edison famously uttered that “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Being resilient becomes easier once the students can internalize the counterintuitive truth that failure is a key component of growth and a step towards – not against – achieving their goals.
  4. Became accountable: Our graduates ought to be someone that others can rely on, which implies that they not only have the courage to act in furtherance of their commitment, but in the event that their actions fail to yield a successful outcome, they are mature enough to admit it. They will not make excuses, but instead, will work tirelessly to figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and promise that the same mistake will not occur again. Our graduates will not attribute the problems that they face in life by blaming someone else or other external factors. They will be quick to give credit where it’s due and take blame as necessary. In the hallowed words of Winston Churchill, “the price of greatness is responsibility” and our graduates will know that without the latter, the former is unattainable.
  5. Developed compassion: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama noted that “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Our graduates, ideally, would possess within them the never-ending urge to continue improving the well-being of not only him or herself, but of those around them. Having empathy and being able to understand a view from another’s perspective is one thing: as Plato once wrote, “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” To be compassionate though, requires an extra gear. Our graduates will not only go to lengths to understand the views of others and how they can contribute to this world, but they will not shy away from acting with kindness as well.
  6. Cultivated a network: Our graduates will strive to be a positive member of their communities through compassion and civic engagement; and in doing so, they will have acquired life-long friends, trustworthy mentors, and underclassmen that they will look after and lead. In addition, their attempts to cultivate their offline social network will incentivize our graduates to resist the gravitational pull towards self-absorption. The network of peers, teachers, and others supporters will bring out the best in our graduates, transforming them into better versions of themselves. One practical tip offered by the esteemed psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman in this regard is for our students to realize that “authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others.” While law schools traditionally tend to have a whiff of competitiveness in their air, our graduates will have inculcated into their moral compasses the adage passed on by Aesop that “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Our graduates will not hesitate to offer a helping hand to those in need, thus expanding their network and strengthening their relationships in the process.
  7. Ready to Flourish: Perhaps it has become banal to encourage one to find what makes them happy and to do what makes them happy, but because there is some wisdom underneath this sentiment, it is worth iterating it here. Eudaimonia is a Greek word, which encapsulates the sense of human flourishing and prosperity. Upon graduation, our students will be on track to finding their personalized eudaimonia for they will have the purpose, potential, resilience, accountability, and compassion to become meaningful contributors in their respective societies with a network of supporters behind them.

In closing, it is worth noting that even the most dedicated educators can sometimes forget that no matter how hard they work, it is not entirely up to them to determine what their students take away from their University experiences. How students develop during their collegiate years is ultimately a collaborative endeavor. Nevertheless, it remains the faculty’s extremely important privilege and responsibility to give our students not just substantive information about the law, but to offer them reminders (and experiences) that will keep them mindful of their development as a human being. One alum recently shared with me that "ironing boards are just surfboards that gave up on their dreams and got real jobs." ​While there is no shame in being an ironing board with a real job, our graduates should never give up on pursuing their dreams; and we, the faculty, should encourage and inspire them to become surfboards.

  More blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht