1998 UCLAW Graduation

 

Faculty Address to the Graduating Class of 1998
Jerry Kang, Acting Professor, UCLA School of Law
May 24, 1998

Thank you, Marty and Jonathan, for that delightful introduction.  And I want to thank the entire class of 1998 for granting me the honor of addressing you, on this joyous occasion.  I’m especially grateful because, in a way, this is my graduation too.  Three years ago, you started as new students at UCLA.  Three years ago, I started as a new professor at UCLA .  Section 7′s first class in civil procedure was my first class in civil procedure.  The anxiety you felt that first day was the anxiety I felt.  But we made it through that semester, didn’t we?  And now, after 3 years, we are all seasoned veterans, here to celebrate our journey together.

At the end of any long and hard journey, it is wise to step back a moment to reflect on where we have come. To get perspective, I ask you to consider this moment in space and time in the flowing river that is your life.

Start by searching backward into the past, the distant past, to examine those complicated and contingent currents that carried you here, to this moment.  What was the fascination with justice or law that brought you to law school?  Do you remember your simple values as a child, of what was right and wrong?  Do you recall your first experience of injustice, perhaps being picked on in the playground?  Remember your struggle for excellence, in grammar school, junior high, high school, and how proud you made your parents along the way.  Recall your excitement and anxiety about going to college — for some of you, the first generation in your family to attend.  Remember your final decision to go to law school.  Was it for economic security?  Was it for political empowerment?  Was it simply because you didn’t want to go to med school?

Now reflect upon the more recent past, your years at UCLA.  Here, you found an environment of academic excellence, diversity, and community.  First, you found academic excellence.  You were surrounded by fellow students blessed with natural smarts, good education, and discipline.  You were taught by faculty doing cutting-edge research who also care greatly about teaching.

Second, you trained in a context of diversity.  By diversity, I mean all kinds, including racial and ethnic, intellectual, and socio-economic.  You learned from that diversity in countless ways, whether you liked it or not.  Sometimes, you were exposed to new perspectives that illuminated substantive points of law.  More subtly, but as important, you learned how to get along with people different from you.  To be sure, not all was idyllic or harmonious: You saw the conflict inherent to difference.  But you took it seriously.  And you are better for it.

Third, you found community.  It is central tenet of this law school that all members of our community be treated with respect.  That is the example set by our beloved Dean Susan Prager.  And this mutual respect, over time, has an uncanny way of growing into mutual affection.

Now, at the end of three years, you are poised on the brink of graduation, with your eyes fixed forward.  But before thinking about what is to come, I ask you to step back even farther, and consider where this moment in space and time fits into the river, of not only your life, but this nation’s life.

Again, search backward into the distant past, to examine this nation’s birth in the torrents of revolution.  Consider the paradoxes of the founding.  Thomas Jefferson proclaimed: “All men are created equal.”  But the founding fathers accepted that certain men and women could be owned as property.  Think of America’s ignominious failures in the 18th and 19th centuries: the enslavement of Africans; the genocide of American Indians; the dispossession of Mexicans; the exclusion of Asians.

And this is not only in the distant past.  Just 50 years ago, federal law would have prevented me from becoming a U.S. citizen because I am not White.  We had segregated education.  We had laws banning marriage between two people in love, simply because one was White, while one was not.

But it would be misleading to note the bad and ugly, without recognizing the undeniable good. Think of America’s extraordinary successes.  We are the political leader of the free world.  We are the economic leader of the free market.  This nation remains a radiant symbol of democracy, individual rights, the rule of law, and the radical notion that everyone can truly belong.  That is why even an immigrant, like me, born in Korea, not of European descent, can proudly claim, from this privileged podium, to be fully American.

The river of your life and the river of the nation’s life thus merge together, here, at this moment in space and time. As you look ahead, you must ask yourself what paths will these rivers take?  The river that is your life — what direction will it take, through what terrain?  And what of this nation?

On the horizon are rough passages.  For you, you’ll confront the difficulties of launching a career, establishing families, balancing the personal and the professional, giving back to the communities that supported your journey here.  For the nation, we will confront the internationalization of culture and politics, the growth of technology and cyberspace, the alarming persistence of inequality based on group bias.  How will  we respond?  What role will law and lawyering play?

When asked these questions, some of you may have a cynical reaction.  You’re thinking to yourself, “Don’t talk to me about ‘rivers of life.’”  Don’t talk to me about social transformation and giving back to some fictive “community.”  Sure, I once had idealistic dreams, but they’ve been leeched out of me.  Life is hard, brutish, and competitive.  It’s not about public service.  As they say in the music industry, “It’s all about the Benjamins” (the $100 bills).

I am not surprised by such cynicism.  It is part of a general cultural phenomenon.  We have no more heros.  We mock our presidents and political leaders.  Irreverence, not respect, is the norm.  We live in a hyper-culture, fast changing, driven by advertisers who seduce us to consume the most expensive products, wear the most stylish looks, and in L .A. drive the fanciest cars.  The most popular talk show invites guests with the hope and expectation that they will batter each other, while we watch in lurid fascination.

We also see cynicism growing in the general legal culture.  Some of this is due to the realities of the workplace, in which firms have become more like legal factories than sites of professional practice.  Where courtesy and respect have been forgotten, lest they interfere with the bottom line.

And we as legal educators must take our share of the blame.  As we teach you legal analysis, you learn how easy it is to manipulate legal precedent.  As we teach you the art of persuasion, you learn how easy it is to become the Devil’s Advocate. As we teach you to dig beneath the surface, you begin to doubt the sincerity of all things.  This training comes from both the Left and the Right.  Critical Legal Studies teaches you that law is politics.  Law and economics teaches you that Homo sapiens is really Homo econimus– single minded, rational maximizers of self-interest.

So we should not be surprised by cynicism.   But let me explain why cynicism is no safe harbor, why it is no place to remain.

First, a common error is to believe that “cynicism” is identical to “sophistication.”  But it isn’t.  Cynicism sees things for what they are, but blinds you to what might be.  By contrast, sophistication sees things for what they are, but instead of blinding you to what is possible, it shows you how to get there. In your training at UCLA, we have given you the tools of sophistication, not cynicism.

And that is good because cynicism fundamentally misdescribes you.  Think of the genuine feelings you have for your parents, family, and friends.  Such feelings are not the stuff of cynics. Moreover, cynicism misdescribes the way you want the river that is your life to flow.  Deep down, you do not want to use your training to manipulate the law shamelessly .  You do not want to use your training to bully others not as smart or sophisticated.  You do not want to use your training to run up the spiraling staircase of materialism, where you will learn the price of everything but the value of nothing.  Instead, you seek to nourish the fountain of what has always been honorable inside you.  While being buffeted by the currents of cynicism, you still seek your river of life to run straight and true.  You seek to use your training to do the same for this nation.

Please do not misunderstand my intention.  I speak of cynicism not as a teacher lecturing to students, but as a fellow traveler equally vulnerable to the seepage of cynicism.  These comments are to remind myself as much as you of what is important, what gives our lives meaning, what gives this nation’s life meaning.

Life is a series of invisible transitions.  And in its fervent pace, we rarely get the chance to stand back and reflect.  So look around.  Smell the air.  Listen to the rustle of the wind through the trees. Feel the sun pouring down on you, and the sweat running down your forehead.  Feel the waves of love and pride emanating from your families and loved ones and teachers.  Better than anything else, this feeling shows the lie of cynicism.  Focus all these sensations and emotions together and etch them into the memory of your heart.  For this moment  of collective intimacy should never be forgotten.

On behalf of the faculty, staff, and our dearly beloved but departing Dean, I congratulate the Class of 1998.  As you pour forth from this courtyard, do fare well.  I will miss you.