2005 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching: Ariela Dubler
Thank you for this incredible honor. First and foremost, thank you to the class of 2005. I have had the privilege of teaching many of you and it is your collective engagement and enthusiasm that have made me love teaching as much as I do. I am truly thrilled to receive this award from you. Thank you also to all the friends and family of the class of 2005 for sharing these wonderful graduates with us; you are their primary educators, and all of us on the stage are grateful that you have let us play a part in their legal education. And, finally, thank you to all the people on the stage—my many colleagues who have made Columbia Law School a place where teaching is so valued.
Now, although I hope we've taught you many things during your years as law students, most of your learning about the law is only about to begin. And, to be clear, I'm referring to your lives, not your bar review courses. As Benjamin Silliman, a then-prominent New York lawyer, told your predecessors at the graduation of the Columbia Law School class of 1867, "Learning is but ammunition without artillery for its use." It's a more militaristic metaphor than I might have chosen, but Mr. Silliman was speaking to a class that had just lived through the Civil War. Silliman offered the class of 1867 quite a few thoughts—actually, thoughts that filled forty-three single-spaced pages—on what to do with the ammunition that they had acquired at Columbia Law School as they turned to the massive educational project of their lives as lawyers. Now don't worry, I'll spare you the forty-three pages and just give you Silliman's core insight: Use the knowledge that you amassed in law school and that you will continue to amass daily from here on in; whatever you choose to do with your law degree—whether you're drafting documents, or litigating cases, or teaching students, or painting paintings— use your legal knowledge to critically evaluate both the legal status quo and the myriad possibilities for legal change. This is the privilege and responsibility that comes with your new status as a lawyer.
Now, you're all going to be different kinds of lawyers and you won't all agree on which elements of the law should be preserved and which elements should be changed. Consider, for what it's worth, Benjamin Silliman's evaluations in 1867: Although Silliman encouraged the graduates to embrace wise legal reforms, he devoted a fair amount of time in his remarks to denouncing new laws that allowed married women to hold property, and he likewise denounced what he considered ill-advised proposals to grant women the right to vote.
No doubt, some of Mr. Silliman's audience agreed with him and others did not. Today, women vote and, Silliman's views notwithstanding, I think we can probably all agree that that legal reform was not such a bad idea. But, like the class of 1867, you are becoming lawyers at a time when other fundamental questions of law and legal reform are deeply controversial. While we might agree on woman suffrage, we might disagree in profound ways about the contested legal questions of our own time—whether it's national security in a post-9/11 world or the meaning of marriage in our federal system. And it's good that we would not all agree on these issues—it's what has made teaching you all such a pleasure and an education. Both inside and outside of the classroom, we have challenged each other on the merits of the legal status quo and its possible alternatives. So whatever you do next, whether it's in a law office, a university, a bank, or an art studio, don't stop asking those fundamental questions. That is how you will continue to educate yourselves and others.
Again, many thanks for this extraordinary honor and many congratulations on your many extraordinary accomplishments.
Ariela Dubler Biography
Professor Ariela Dubler has a J.D and a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. She joined the faculty of Columbia Law School in 2001 after clerking for Judge José A. Cabranes on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Since her arrival at Columbia Law School she has taught family law, perspectives on legal thought, and a seminar on the family and the state. Professor Dubler's research and writing focuses on the legal history of marriage and the legal regulation of intimate life outside of marriage.