‘On Educated’ | Letters to Law Students (#30)

Letter to law students #30 On ‘Educated’

My dear law students

I have just read a wonderful book by Tara Westover titled ‘Educated’. I was reluctant to read her work initially because of the hype around it in the United States. But once I started reading, I was hooked. It’s a memoir of a person growing up in rural Idaho who is both transformed and repelled by the conservative Mormon traditions of her family. As the memoir progresses, the central theme changes to domestic abuse and its devastating aftereffects. Westover’s treatment of the evils that parents and siblings can visit on their loved ones is poignant and almost unbearable to read at times. By the end of the memoir, Westover has transcended her circumstances to obtain degrees from Brigham Young University (BYU) and Cambridge.

I want to celebrate Westover’s work for one more reason, an aspect that might be overshadowed by other events in her life. There are three people she mentions in her memoir without whose support she would not have taken the strides in education that she did. The first one is a kindly bishop who Westover turned to for counselling (“I talked and he listened, drawing the shame from me like a healer draws infection from a wound.”). She repeatedly refuses to take money from the government or the church for her education and in exasperation, the Bishop offers her money from his personal account. Her second benefactor is her history teacher Prof Kerry at BYU, who takes an interest in this student who can barely comprehend texts, much less analyse them critically. He encourages her to go to Cambridge on a study abroad programme (“You might not be accepted, but if you are, it may give you some idea of your abilities.”) If he had stopped here, it would have already been a generous thing to do given that she was the kind of student who professors might often overlook. But he went further. When Cambridge rejected Westover’s application, he used his discretionary powers to recommend her application. I have always felt that this is what a good professor ought to do: decisively take a call to push someone they think might do something with their life, even if no one, including that student thinks so.

The third angel in her life was Professor Steinberg, a professor at Cambridge who was assigned to supervise Westover’s work at Cambridge while she was on the exchange programme. His interactions with Westover traverse a mere handful of pages in her book, but are filled with a lifetime of academic inspirations. The very fact of their academic relationship is a thing of wonder. Here is a busy professor who is devoting a good part of his time to an undergraduate student. This is the product of the tutorial system in Oxbridge which enables (and indeed, requires) accomplished scholars to spend time one on one with students to improve their research and writing skills. What’s the point of scholarship if it can’t be transmitted from one generation to another? Indian law schools have much to learn from the tutorial system.

But the tutorial system, while impressive, is not the reason I was impressed with the story about Professor Steinberg. It’s about what he did with it. She says she never went to school. He replies “How marvelous”. At first, he asks her to read, not what he wants her to read, but what she wants to read. He goes through her essays threadbare, caring equally about the form and the substance of her written work. Finally, he asks her to compare Edmund Burke with the likes of James Madison, and when she submits her work, tells her that she has written an outstanding essay and that she should go to graduate school. She says that she can’t afford graduate school. “Let me worry about that”, he replies. He did, because it was on the wings of his strong recommendation that she received a prestigious scholarship from Cambridge.

This narrative has everything that a professor aspiring to excellence in his position can look for. A scholar trying to pass on his skills, undeterred by the circumstances of his student, guiding her step by step towards an outcome that both of them can be proud of, and then going beyond his call of duty to help her achieve her larger academic goals. How many academics are able to do this?

Despite her resounding success with Prof Steinberg, Westover remains skeptical about her ability to blend into the Cambridge intellectual life. Prof Kerry notices her discomfiture and tells her to stop thinking that she does not deserve to be at Cambridge. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, this is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold.”

My dear law students, none of our lives would amount to anything without some incredible people helping us because they believed in us. Many of you will go through something similar to Westover-you will have your benefactors, who supported you when you were adrift. When your turn comes to help others, and it will, remember their example.

Note: This letter has been reproduced after taking Professor Nuggehalli’s consent.

To read more from the series on ‘Letter to Law Students’, you could check out the page here.  You could read more about Professor Nigam Nuggehalli here

If you wish to write for us, or share a story, please get in touch at umang.poddar@lawctopus.com.

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