Hardly anyone got along with my great-uncle Earl. A pathologist of some renown, he assumed the role of roving intellectual interrogator at any family gathering. Without pretext, he would zero in on his subject a self-assured nephew or stray in-law and begin asking questions about history, literature, science, or whatever had his focus. No matter how capricious his questioning seemed, Earl always had a destination in mind, some fundamental truth or paradox he wanted his subject to confront. But few ever got to that destination. Under Earl s relentless inquiry, his subject would inevitably stumble. At the faintest whiff of incoherence, Earl went into one of his infamous rants, scoffing at and berating his subject, who usually staggered away in some blend of disgrace, disgruntlement, and disinterest. Picture Earl as a browbeating Socrates not guiding people to truth, but dragging them there.
Growing up, I knew Earl only for some intriguing snippets of his past he had worked on the Manhattan Project and taught at Harvard Medical School and for his interrogation routine. For years I had duly followed my relatives advice when Earl was around: Don t let him corner you. The first time I can remember speaking to him was when I was thirteen, at my Bar Mitzvah reception. Amid a sea of congratulations and handshakes, Earl caught me off guard. Now, let me ask you this, he began. Who was the most influential U.S. president of the twentieth century? I mumbled something about FDR before an alert nearby relative, sensing danger, whisked me away.
A few weeks after I started college, I visited Earl for the first time. His wife had recently died, and he was living alone at his house in Boston. Within minutes of arriving there, I found myself cornered in his living room. Earl began with a broad question: Why did the North win the Civil War? I rushed out a facile response, which he shot down immediately. I offered another explanation, and he just sneered at me. I then realized that Earl was looking for a coherent argument, not a quick answer. The rest of the protocol soon fell into place. Evasions, hedges, and groundless statements were unacceptable. Pertinent challenges to his own reasoning were encouraged. When an obscure subject say, the Battle of Resaca came up, I was free to admit my ignorance; from then on, Earl would be instructive and patient. Eventually, for each of his breathless censures ( You cannot truly believe that! ; That s just rubbish! ) there was a sly, grinning nod of approval. For the rest of college, I visited Earl regularly, up until his death this year.
What drew me to Earl? It was refreshing to encounter someone who shamelessly discarded the social conventions that typically guide debate in college and society at large: that everyone should be heard out completely and that all opinions are valid. While these conventions promote civility, they tend to steer people toward being anodyne and noncommittal. Earl was the first person to so relentlessly confront my arguments and beliefs. He always pushed me to recognize the assumptions that undergirded any argument and to examine their logical implications. I soon realized how not having someone like Earl around bred in me a shallow confidence. It seemed possible that I could float through my entire college education perhaps even my entire life without ever having so rigorously defended my beliefs. In this light, my discussions with Earl were treasured experiences.
Earl s living room was a retreat from the formal aspects of college the tests, the assignments, the activities, the relentless propulsion to get things done that tended to fog the elemental pleasure of learning. It was an invigorating and liberating experience to discuss ideas solely for wisdom s sake. As I grew into college, I began to hold myself to personal, not external, academic standards. When I spoke in class, did I firmly believe what I was saying, and could I back it up? In other words, would it stand up to Earl? The crucible was my experience abroad at the University of Cambridge, whose tutorial system is centered on a series of one-on-one dialogues with a distinguished professor. After extensive reading, I prepared a weekly essay, which I defended at length from my professor s probing inquiries. Like Earl, my professor did not just scrutinize my arguments but also my thought processes. This confrontational type of critique was more daunting but also more instructive than the handwritten notes I was accustomed to receiving on returned papers in high school and college. At Cambridge, I could not disassociate myself from my written words; I was an exposed, accountable author. After a few weeks, I grew adept at vocalizing my positions and anticipating my professor s inquiries. This process of thoroughly preparing and defending my work made Cambridge a unique and intense intellectual experience one that confirmed for me that I thrived when forced to take a stand on an issue and defend it under pressure.
Since August, I have been an intern at Northwestern s Center on Wrongful Convictions. After reading numerous case records, it became clear to me that some vague but pervasive notions informing our criminal justice system that the death penalty deters murder, that a confession guarantees guilt are dubious. Yet the further complexities of an imperfect criminal justice system often compel me to examine my deeper assumptions. For instance, after meeting several men who have endured the nightmare of a patently wrongful conviction, I constructed in my mind a portrait of false incriminators as villains. Then one of my colleagues at the Center told me her story. Years ago, she had been raped and had, on her hospital bed, falsely identified an innocent man from a photo that the police had not placed in an array. Her identification helped send this man to prison for several years; he was eventually exonerated. She has since dedicated her time to improving witness identification protocol. In scenarios such as these when the urge to assign clear-cut culpability for injustice goes unsatisfied I am reminded of the danger of making easy conclusions and of my obligation to relentlessly challenge my reasoning. Earl s lessons reverberate every day.