Saturday, January 15, 2022

#15 / The True Purpose Of College


On the very day I started preparing to teach my Winter Quarter course at the University of California, Santa Cruz (LGST 159 - Property And The Law), the December 20, 2021, edition of The New Yorker showed up in my mailbox, with an article by Louis Menand. The illustration above accompanied Menand's article, which is titled (in the hard-copy edition of the magazine), "Too Good For This World." The article discusses so-called "Great Books" courses. Associated with the image I have reproduced is the following statement: 
Critics argue that academic careerists have derailed the true purpose of college - the pursuit of self-knowledge.
That statement caught my attention, and I immediately set aside my work on my draft Syllabus and Class Schedule, in order to read Menand's article. "Property and the Law" is a course that is intended to impart very specific information about property law, but I happen to agree that my real agenda, as an instructor, ought to be to stimulate students to know themselves better - and to know their power to change the world, in particular. The specifics of existing property law are of a somewhat secondary importance.
Regular readers of these blog postings will probably remember that I often say that "my favorite category is possibility," and that we are not only "observers," but "actors." Strictly speaking, talking about things like this in a course on property law may seem to be a bit off topic - but that is true only if observable "facts," and not "understanding," is at the heart of what students should be thinking about and learning.

The nature of "property" is one of the very first things I teach in my property law class (the course is now in full swing, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m.). I tell students that the nature of property is not something to be "observed," but to be "created." In fact, what we commonly think of as "property" is most usually real estate or tangible objects (a dead fox and a home run baseball are items of property featured in an early class session). These, however, are not really what "property" is, at all. "Property" is a set of rights and rules, established by law, and since we make the laws, observing existing property relationships - and learning about those - is not the only thing we need to do, when we start thinking about property law. 
Accordingly, I start students off with what I like to call my "favorite equation," expressed as follows: 

Politics > Law > Government

To understand this "equation," start on the right. How we govern ourselves (including with respect to how we deal with issues related to real estate and other kinds of property) depends on the laws that set up the rules. That is what those "Law" and "Government" elements in that "equation" signify. Note though, that the laws that set up the rules that govern our lives together are the product of a "political" process, in which we can, in fact, choose what those laws should say. The inherent power that citizens have, to change the laws of property, is what ultimately defines what "property" is. 

A student who truly "gets" the implication of this understanding of property - and of government in general - has achieved a particularly valuable piece of self-knowledge. That student knows, in other words, that the student is not required simply to accept the rules and realities immediately presented. The student can - at least potentially - change those rules and realities.
I wasn't taught much in college about my personal power to change political, and economic, and social reality (although I did take an Honors Seminar in "Utopia," which helped provide that perspective). While I definitely want the students that I am teaching to know the existing rules relating to property - there are quizzes on that - I also want to make sure that my students in the Legal Studies Program at UCSC know that what property "is" will ultimately be what we, using the democratic powers of self-government, decide that it ought to be!

Image Credit:

1 comment:

  1. Gary-
    In the Atlantic today:
    "In effect, we live in two worlds: a world in close contact with nature, buried deep in our ancestral brains, and a natureless world of the digital screen and constructed environment ..."


Thanks for your comment!