Leiden Law Blog

Life and death in the classroom (shut up)

Life and death in the classroom (shut up)

It has been said and written many times before: the majority of scholarly works never reach a readership or audience broader than the weary eyes at reference desks and a handful of others, who often tend to misread all this good (?) hard work anyway. “The more often an article or book is refereed, the more it is in fact read as well.” (Note the negative dialectic in this otherwise obvious truth.)

Still, on we go, on this often-lonely publish or perish treadmill, driven by motives like fear of losing our jobs, longings for a higher position and so on. All driving forces that are unrelated to the value and worth of scholarship for humankind’s sake, if that really exists. But then, not writing or publishing at all is not really conducive to learning, which may in turn impede the quality of academic teaching. Thus it is not a good idea to hire lecturers for teaching duties only.

Sometimes academic teaching is more instructive than writing and reading. Even first-year students may ask questions that need to be answered ‘on the spot’ and could lead to further contemplation or even the  discrediting of long-held pet views. Teaching is a great privilege indeed, and not just for this reason, however bloodlessly abstract legal and related subjects oftentimes may be.

Teaching judges is an even more rewarding challenge. Recently, the subject to be taught was criminal liability, psychiatry, free will and neuroscience. Things were a bit abstract in the morning (philosophy of law), but then forensic psychiatry, explained by a prominent professor, was the afternoon subject. However, although interesting, this started to meander somewhat. The professor repeatedly stating that he “lost his thread” as we say in Dutch, and so on.

After a while, there was even a switch to a completely different subject: euthanasia and assisted suicide in general: “No medical doctor, dedicated to the preservation of life as his profession is, ought to assist in any suicide” so this ever more absent-minded, but still self-conscious, celebrity taught our ever more silent audience. People wondered about the relationship between this rather radical point of view and the general subject we were hired to teach and discuss, until an elderly court member intervened – and rather decisively so.

I lost my daughter. She chronically suffered from anorexia, depression and related mental illnesses from the age of about twelve. Nothing could help her, whatever we tried to do. Aged thirty she asked for permission to die. She was so glad to hear her euthanasia was authorised. She died aged thirty-four.

Everything and everybody else paled into silence and insignificance after this deeply emotional moment: life overtaking bloodless or simply ill-considered academia. It signified the end of the day’s session, and rightly so. So much for academia’s haughtiness vis-à-vis real life, and death. Scholarly writing is a good thing, academic teaching still more so, but above all there is real life and its tragedies.

What still ought to be said is this: suicide, assisted or otherwise, is unrelated to the issue of life (good?) versus death (bad?). Sooner or later we all die. The one and only issue is the time in our lives when this occurs: how good would it be to go on in the face of a sometimes unbearable future? Let this not just be one more abstract bit of academic teaching. Instead, let it be consolation, for this father and for us all. And do not forget that whatever you teach, however abstract and academic, it ought to do some good for real human beings. (Shut up otherwise.)

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