Thoughts on life
Marking, striking, teaching, writing
I have been busy writing for deadlines and marking students’ assignments. We also had a general strike today. I did not make it in person to the strike rally, as one of my children was unwell and had to take the day off school, but I did wear my “Mordor University” t-shirt.
And I did indeed strike during the requisite period.
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Anyway, here, in no particular order are the following offers to my readers:
Link to open letter by Melbourne Law School staff to the Vice Chancellor, Provost and the Deputy Vice Chancellor (People and Community); and
Link to letter in support of Law School staff by the Melbourne University Law Students’ Society (thanks guys).
I have been talking to several international colleagues and the situation in their universities is similar. Indeed, several colleagues in the UK have said their plight could be described in similar terms to our open letter.
This makes me think that the issues facing the tertiary sector are global and systemic, and the result of successive policies from both sides of government with regard to how universities are funded and structured. I continue to believe that a series of decisions have led to perverse incentives. Chief among them is the “metric” approach to success.
On the academic front, over the last few weeks, I have been to writing a paper on the history of principles of remoteness in contract damages. The paper is, as is my wont, wide-ranging. I started with Roman law, moved to Aristotle and the Scholastic monks, the ius commune, then moved to the humanist natural law scholars such as Grotius. After that, I looked at the French scholars who borrowed from Grotius, the drafting of the French Code Civil, the borrowing of some French principles by the English common law courts, and the use of those principles in colonial jurisdictions such as Australia, India and Singapore.
I was struck by the fact that my life as a scholar is far less dramatic than some of the scholars I considered in the paper. For example, Hugo Grotius (a.k.a. Huig de Groot) wrote De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres [On the Law of War and Peace Three Books]. The French Wars of Religion had just ended in 1598, when 15-year-old Grotius, a child prodigy, visited Paris as part of a Dutch diplomatic mission, and he was presented to Henri IV. During his lifetime, Grotius witnessed not only the Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant nations (although the French sided with the Protestants), which lasted from 1618 to 1648, but also the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch and the Spanish, which raged from around 1566 to 1648. He died in 1645, three years before either of those wars ended. It was no wonder he was concerned by war and peace, and principles which could appeal to people beyond divine notions of justice.
He championed religious toleration, and consequently, he was arrested and sentenced to life-imprisonment in Loevestein Castle. He escaped in a book chest, with the help of his wife Maria, and one of their maid-servants, and wrote from exile in France.
I’m not a natural lawyer—I’m a Razian positivist—but reading of Grotius’s life, I felt immense sympathy for what he was trying to achieve. He wanted to find natural principles of justice which would appeal to people regardless of religion, and he wanted people to stop behaving unjustly in wars and conflicts. He also championed tolerance, a message which bears repeating in current society.
It is said that on his deathbed Grotius said, “By understanding many things, I have accomplished nothing” (Door veel te begrijpen, heb ik niets bereikt). The eternal lament of the academic!
In fact, his ideas had a profound influence on many areas of law, including, as I discovered, shaping the development of principles of remoteness in contract law. One can never know whether one’s ideas will have influence. When I was a very young academic, I wanted to be the person who came up with a ground-breaking theory, the work which changed everyone’s view.
I gave up on that aim long ago, while writing my PhD. All I can do is write work I’m proud of, which is well-researched and well-written, and which (hopefully) helps some people understand the law. Our aim in academia should not be personal aggrandisement, but to stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before, and to help others stand on our shoulders in turn. We all fear (Grotius included!) that perhaps our work doesn’t matter. His story tells us that we can’t tell the ways in which it will matter in the future. It may sink without a trace, or it may be picked up by others. That’s academic life.
I get joy from seeing that as a teacher, I can make an immediate difference to students’ understanding. And that’s also why I participated in the strike, and helped draft the letter to university management: because I care about what I do, and about my students.