I know someone who keeps all her textbooks on her shelf even after she finishes a course, so she can have her entire education at her fingertips. This is great thinking – it reminds me that I came to university to learn things I’m interested in, not just to acquire a degree. It also reminds me to think about what I’ve learned that will stick with me in the future. As the academic year of 2022 has just finished off, here are some of the most interesting things I’ve learned.

Why should we keep our promises to strangers?

Contract Law (LAW 241). This was one of my favorite courses at university to date. It showed how society is kept together by contracts – it makes people who may otherwise hate each other work together for a common goal, where each gets something out of the bargain. Schools, products, tenancy, banking, sports, entertainment, etc are all held together by contracts. There were far too many interesting cases but what I loved the most was understanding the principles that apply to all sorts of circumstances, and the reason why rules exist. (To make sure people in the future can rely on promises by making agreements.)

What makes an offence criminal? When does the law fail to accommodate people’s realities?

Criminal Law (LAW 201). We studied the interplay between tikanga and the criminal law and how to break down the elements of an offence in the Crimes Act so you can successfully prosecute someone.

The most shocking cases were how the law can be developed for one purpose and can create gaps in justice when circumstances change.

For example, self-defense was created by the English common law in the context of men of equal strength in hand-to-hand combat. To raise self-defense, you have to prove someone posed an imminent threat to you. Women in situations of domestic violence situations often fail on this point, because their spouses are often much stronger than them. Waiting for an imminent blow is ‘tantamount to death by instalment’ (according to the Canadian Supreme Court), as if a woman were to engage in hand-to-hand combat with her spouse, she would probably be killed before she could strike back.

Women tend to act in self-defence when their partner is asleep or unaware (and so the threat isn’t imminent), and doesn’t meet the requirements of self-defence

How can we become capable of committing atrocities against other people?

Answered by: Ethnopolitical Violence: Hate Crimes to Genocide (POL 356)

This course became something like a toolbox to identify how one group is dehumanised. We studied genocides and ethno-political violence across the world, and why people who can live peacefully with their neighbors can become capable of committing atrocities against them. The goal was to understand if similar processes drive ethnic violence in different societies – what are the key elements and causes when the societies are so different? Some examples include Myanmar, Rwanda, Germany, and anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic riots in the U.S.

The most important thing I learned throughout the case studies was that anyone, under the right circumstances, can dehumanise another. A legitimate occupant believes in what they perceive is rightfully and exclusively theirs (control of land). When a different group arrives, if it is perceived as a threat to the settled group’s way of life, hostilities can quickly appear. Fear and defensiveness tend to justify the violence. So the important question to ask is in a contemporary context is: who is being framed as an Other?

What is truth? Should we believe it is absolute?

Answered by: Critical Theory (English 322)

This course covered everything from Freud’s subconscious; the use of symbols to show social arrangements; the use of binaries (understanding something by defining its opposite); the role of language and discourse in cementing power dynamics; postcolonialism; the role of monsters to reflect the worst aspects of society; and the role of religion and capitalism in art.

It was all applied to the context of literature. I learned that any manmade truth or statement can never be absolute, because it’s dependent on the conditions it was produced in. It made me far more skeptical and interested in what I couldn’t see, what was underneath a social order, and what voices and stories are absent from a narrative. 

Is capitalism the best way of organising society?

POLS 316 (capitalism and its critics).

This course had more questions than answers. We studied alienation and satisfaction with our jobs, whether money makes us happy, whether we know our best interests, and if we care too much about others’ consumption habits. Capitalism was always compared to socialism, where the state determines everything and people have little autonomy (but everything is much more fair). We looked at the benefits of capitalism. Because everyone wants to make a profit, people have more incentive to create. Under capitalism, the worst-off are far better off than the poorest in pre-capitalist societies.

The most interesting point I learned was skepticism. If we will criticise a system, we need to consider alternatives. And everything depends on so many factors that constantly change. Nothing is certain. We don’t completely lose our ability to judge because of advertising. And the alternatives to capitalism may be worse than its drawbacks.

Overall, it’s been a very illuminating year to add to the stock. (And it always reminds me of how much more there is to learn!)