2012 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching: Robert J. Jackson Jr.
Thank you, Priya, and thank you to the Class of 2012. I am so honored to receive the Reese Prize, and to have the chance to talk with you and your families today.
It wasn’t very long ago that I was sitting where you are right now, at my own law school graduation. And Columbia students are taught by a faculty full of extraordinary teachers. Because all of you have had the benefit of their years of wisdom, I doubt there is much I can say today that will add to what you already know. And I don’t want to keep you long. So I thought that I would offer just four thoughts that have been especially important to me in the short time since I was sitting where you are this afternoon.
First, try hard to remember the difference between what you know and what you don’t know. During my first year of law school, my torts professor asked me whether or not I knew which party, the plaintiff or the defendant, had won a particular case. I rambled for a bit and finally said that in some ways both sides had won. My professor paused for a moment and then replied: “So is it safe to say that your answer to my question is: ‘No’?”
At Columbia, we work hard, in our teaching and in our research, to distinguish what we know about the world from what we merely think might be true. So I know that all of you understand this difference very well. But life is long, and this lesson can be easy to forget. When I graduated from law school, most experts agreed that highly complex financial instruments could be safely used in very large numbers to reduce banks’ risks at relatively low cost to our financial system. They were very confident. And they were wrong. As you grow more sure of the world in the coming years, I hope our faculty’s voices will grow louder in your minds, pushing you to ask yourselves whether all is really as certain as it seems.
Second, stay connected to where you came from. The parents, siblings, and friends here with you today have been there since the birth of who you are, and they will influence who you will become in ways that you might not fully appreciate, even now.
Before I went to law school, I’d never considered becoming a teacher. But I’ve always had a teacher in my life, because my mother has been teaching the second grade for almost 15 years. In many ways, I have been thinking about teaching for most of my life. Any skill, and all of the passion, I have for teaching comes from my mother. So, with your permission, I would like to dedicate this incredible prize to my mother, who is here today. She was my first teacher and my best teacher. In the busy lives that you will lead, it will not always be easy to stay connected to your families, but I promise that it will be worth it. They have shaped who you are, and if you are as lucky as I have been, they will shape who you will become, too.
Third, keep learning. When I received my law degree, I felt that I had made it—that I had finally come to the end of a very long, winding, and uncertain road. And then, in the five years after I graduated, I held five different jobs, from law clerk to private practice to working for the government during the financial crisis. Every time I took a new job, I had to learn a great deal about something I knew almost nothing about—be it courts, clients, or politics.
What does this tell you, other than the fact that I apparently have a hard time holding on to a job? Rather than thinking about today as the end of your legal education, I’d encourage you to think of it as the beginning. Indeed, that is what is so special, and valuable, about studying the law. The degree you’re about to receive says much more about your capacity to learn than it does about what you already know. When you come upon something new, in the law or in life, I hope you won’t respond with resistance. Instead, I hope you’ll feel that raw excitement of your first day of classes here at Columbia, and remember that my colleagues and I have licensed you as among the world’s very best learners.
Finally, do not be afraid of change in the law. During my time in government, while working on Treasury rules related to the bank bailout, my bosses asked me during a meeting whether we could try a different approach for some banks than we had for others. Now, I had carefully reviewed Treasury’s existing rules and knew the answer, so I said, rather confidently: “No. They would have to change the rules.” My boss was exasperated, and responded: “Who’s ‘they’?! These are Treasury rules. You work for Treasury. I have news for you. You are ‘they.’”
Here at Columbia, we teach you to have deep respect for the law as it stands now. And so we should, because the law we have is the product of centuries of conversations among those who once sat where you are today. You should never pursue change in the law lightly. But the law we have, though hard-earned, is not perfect. When your moment comes to make change in the law—and it will—seize it. Today you are receiving a degree from Columbia Law School. You are joining a long tradition of leaders in the law. Your colleagues, wherever you go, will look to you for guidance not only for what the law is, but what it should be. Don’t be afraid to give it to them.
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So, that’s it. Four thoughts: Remember the difference between what you know and what you don’t, stay connected to where you come from, keep learning, and embrace your new role as leaders in the law. Now, I promised to be brief, and I want to let all of you come up here and receive the recognition you so deeply deserve. But before I do, I want to share one last reflection on what we are about to do together this afternoon.
Every day, the incredible people sitting behind me come to Columbia to think, teach, write, and learn about the law. Many have dedicated a lifetime to their craft, and many more, like me, hope to do the same. Our faculty loves the law.
That is what makes what is about to happen so extraordinary. Today, the people who love the law enough to dedicate their lives to it begin the process of handing it over to you. When you reach out today and receive your law degree from Columbia, you will gain your share of ownership over the future of the law. As a researcher, I spend most of my time thinking about incentives—how to persuade people to do that which we hope they will do. Often, the best way to do that is to give ownership to those who are in control. Today, the faculty of Columbia Law School is handing ownership over that which is most precious to us to each one of you, confident that you will be faithful stewards of what we hold most dear. I know that you will prove us right.
Congratulations to each of you, and to your families, for all that you have accomplished and for all that lies ahead. And thank you for this award—and the incredible privilege of being your teacher.