Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Teachers who change your world

It was the last ever History and Theory seminar today. The last class Prof. Allott will ever teach before retiring. I don’t think any of the seven of us wanted it to end.

I cannot overstate the impact of this course on my thinking about my professional discipline, public international law. There was no grand final revelation today, thought the entire course is really an explanation of his view of the world, leading up to a final point where (agree with it or not) you’re in a position to get his point.

His aim is to equip you to argue for or against (broadly) all current interpretations of international law and pick your own (though he would obviously be happy if it were his). Extraordinarily ambitious.

When the dust settles, I might try to explain my reaction better. His view of international society and order (and the role of law within it) is commonly dismissed as Utopian, but … well, it demands that you think, engage and not just constrain yourself to the hideous view that international law is a useless Lilliputian effort to restrain the Gulliver of state power with a thousand legal threads (to steal a metaphor from Krauthammer whose view of international law is that negative).

Anyway, this small, dry-witted, modest, Cambridge don with his deliberate enunciation and watery blue-grey eyes has had us dizzy and spellbound since October. Even those convinced they’ll fail the exam rave about him down the pub.

It’s like waking up as a character in Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” – a small, possibly deluded, group of idealists overwhelmed by the intellectual charisma of an unashamed classicist.

But, y’know, without the murder and unhappy endings … so far at least.

Regardless of what happens, this course alone will have been worth the year. It is the one class here that I feel has been an actual education, not just a chance to extend existing knowledge and skills.

It is simply appalling that numbers in this subject at Cambridge have been dropping because it is “too hard”; and worse that this kind of intellectual challenge is slipping out of the education system in general in the face of “commercial reality”, “profit centres” and “relevance” and probably more so because students see it as a luxury than because Law Faculties are not prepared to support them.

That said, I just can’t imagine anyone else teaching this particular course. On the other hand, it’s been one of those experiences that restores your faith in the inestimable value (at any level) of being a teacher.

Life-changing teachers, anyone? I know I can’t be alone here …

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