by Ema Klugman
“We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.” -Tara Westover
I had a lightbulb moment in college a few years ago. It was in a political science seminar course. We spent the majority of the class time debating the merits of abstract ideas that ancient philosophers developed and trying to map them onto current policy debates about technology, immigration, healthcare, and more broadly, the role of government in society. A light went off in my brain when my professor said three words, which, in hindsight, were not that groundbreaking: “ideas have consequences.”
At once this phrase encapsulated so little and so much. On the one hand, of course ideas have consequences—that’s why we have education and emphasize it as a public good. Understanding ideas and debating them informs us about how to improve things for ourselves and those around us. But the concept that “ideas have consequences” also underlies our faith in this experiment we call democracy. The problem is that only the ideas that bubble to the surface have consequences—those ideas which are unspoken or unheard (either because they are suppressed or because people are afraid to mention them) do not really have consequences because they are never considered seriously or enacted as policies.
As a law student, I think the phrase “ideas have consequences” is even more true than I did before. And that is because ideas represent decisions and tradeoffs. Consider some examples that I came across and wondered about during my first semester of law school. The idea that statutes of limitations differ from state to state. The idea that defamation is a tort, but only when someone is alive. The idea that an oral contract can be enforceable just like a written one. The idea that unless you understand these ideas, no one will take you seriously in your attempts to challenge them.
Which takes me to my next idea: that without education we really cannot understand ideas, which means we cannot understand their consequences either. A lawyer is supposed to be an advocate, a voice on behalf of the person or people they are representing. It should not be lost on us that we have access to the tools to understand ideas and their consequences. We are learning how the system works, and with that privilege should come the responsibility that if we see something wrong with it, we should try to fix it.
In my first semester of law school, I learned that I knew very little about the American legal system. This made me hungry. It also made me stressed—particularly when other students in my classes seemed to know what was going on. But I learned to pay less attention to what other people were doing, and ask the questions that were plaguing me. Because if they were questions consistently popping up in my head, they must have also been popping up in others’ heads.
I also learned something that was hard for me: to trust that ideas would make sense in time. I lost track of the number of times I encountered ideas that made no sense to me. It was as if they were being presented in a different language, on 3x speed. It was funny to review my notebooks at the end of the semester—in several spots, I had pages with the heading “Stuff I Don’t Understand,” where I had written down all of the most recent concepts that had flown straight over my head. I would then Google them, look up YouTube videos about them, or call my friends to talk about them. I would look at the materials that my professors posted online. Even then, I often felt like I had only a basic understanding of the concepts. It was nerve-wracking because I felt so stupid, so behind. But then a miraculous thing would happen: two or three weeks later, everything would just click.
Sometimes concepts really did not make sense in isolation. But when we had covered more material, I could understand where they fit in. I could start to see what their purpose was. Why they existed. What their consequences were.
So here I am, a little bit addicted to ideas. The problem—and the joy of it—is that I am persuaded by so many ideas, and driven to investigate them further. And that must be why I love school, and debates, and classes that make me feel inadequate for a while and then satisfied when I start to understand what is going on.
The late David Foster Wallace said that “the real value of a real education… has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.” Education is realizing that ideas have consequences. It is seeing an idea from different angles, at different times, through different lenses. It is wondering: even if this seems like a good idea for most people, is it fair to everyone? It is asking whether an idea we had 40 years about how society should work should apply to our world today. It is looking at the rules, and the people they affect, and considering the possibilities of what could be different.