My Three-MARK-able Day
Bill Long 11/23/05
As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday, 2005, we are urged to think of things for which we are grateful. It isn't a bad way to spend some time, especially for critically-minded people like me who are always eager to spot the shortcomings or inconsistencies in the arguments of other people. Last Thursday I had three unexpected encounters, all with guys named Mark, and I told myself that what happened to me was remarkable, even three-Mark-able. If you will forgive my feeble humor and keep reading, I would be most grateful. Indeed, upon thinking about these encounters I am convinced that what makes me so grateful about them is that they arose out of expressions of gratitude initiated by the "Marks." Here is what I mean.
The First Mark ("Mark I") --A Student
Mark I was waiting outside my office when I arrived last Thursday. He hadn't made an appointment, and I don't know how long he had been waiting, but he wanted to know if I had some time to talk. I surely had time. Mark is one of my very best students. He is intellectually alert, congenial, careful in his work, thoughtful in expression and willing to participate in class. Since I depend so heavily on student initiative in my seminar class, I have been especially glad that Mark was in my class. In short, he is one of the reasons that my class "worked" this term.
We sat down, and Mark searched for the right words. Then he said matter-of-factly that the class this term was the primary reason he still was in law school. He didn't much like the pressurized atmosphere of law school* and wanted to tell me that my course
[*Although it may be a bit of a stretch, I think that too much "pressure" is exerted on students in law school. Learning happens through conversation, conversation with people, with texts, with the self. Conversations only develop slowly, and major points need to be repeated on occasion. Because law schools (and most faculty) are still captive to the myth of "coverage," where we MUST "cover," whatever that means, a certain amount of material within the course of a semester, we miss the crucial notion that learning law, like everything else, is more of a slow conversation than a monologue or an experiment in being force-fed. Perhaps some day I will write further about the evils of "coverage."]
and the collegial way I taught it was the primary reason he was still in law school. He wasn't sure he wanted to be a lawyer, to represent clients, to pick people up out of the "gutter" of life and put them back on their feet. He said that my way of talking about law gave him a perspective and a sense that law could be much more and much different than his previous experience had taught him. I was, as you might imagine, touched beyond peradventure.
"Mark II"--A Former Student
Then, in the afternoon, another Mark stopped by. He was originally supposed to see me earlier in the week but he was unable to make the appointment, and so he rescheduled for Thursday. This Mark was applying to doctoral programs in philosophy around the country and wanted to know if I would assist him by writing letters of recommendation. I was happy to do so. Mark II was also bitten by the jurisprudential bug, at least as I teach the course, and was especially interested in ways that the natural law tradition in law might be recaptured today. Twenty years ago people would have scorned the attempt to bring natural law concepts into the contemporary understanding of law; indeed, even Clarence Thomas, who mentioned that ill-fated phrase in his confirmation hearings in 1991, quickly backed down when pressed on whether he would incorporate "natural law" methods or instincts into his judicial thinking.* Yet in the last
[If you are that interested in what natural law is, you can start reading here.]
fifteen years, natural law has seen something of a comeback. It is an appealing system of thought to those who believe there are certain permanent and unchangeable principles, such as justice and fairness, that are not only built into the structure of our being but are, as it were, impressed upon the world. Mark II would like to investigate this theory and mount a defense for it in the 21st century.
Students who ask professors for recommendations are often effusive (sometimes overly so) in their praise for what the professor has brought into their lives. But Mark's stopping by and wanting me to help him think about the next step, which included letters of recommendation, added a dimension of joy to my day.
Mark III--from the Deep Past
But my most surprising encounter of the day was a completely unexpected one with Mark III. It happened as follows. While Mark II was in my office, I decided to do an internet search with him about some philosophy programs he might not have considered. I urged him also to consider religion departments, since many of them also have programs in the philosophy of religion. As I was calling up the web page of one of the Ivy League schools, I recognized a name in my search. I looked more closely and saw that Mark III was the chairman of one of the departments we were considering at this Ivy League university. I said out loud, "Wow, I know this guy. He was in my church youth group 30+ years ago. I was the leader and he was a sophomore in high school at the time." After my conversation with Mark II was over, I decided to drop Mark III an email, even though I hadn't talked to him in nearly 30 years.
To my surprise and utter delight Mark III quickly responded. He had such kind things to say about memories of me from the deep past that I simply had to stop my work and relive some of those days (1974 especially) when I was completing my honors thesis at Brown University, while in CA, and he was the ringleader of a group of precocious high-school sophomores under my charge. We have since corresponded again, and I would like to re-connect with Mark III when I am in the East in the Spring.
One of the things I never realized, while in my 30s and 40s, was that the sixth decade of life can bring such unexpected joys--what some might call the fruit of many years of planting and watering. But as I think of Thanksgiving this year, with both of my kids 3000 miles away and as I eat a turkey leg or chicken breast with my friend Tony, I will have the three Marks on my mind.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long