I’ve been called blunt, terse and far, far worse, but rarely has anyone suggested that I’ve been too polite to make my position clear. Apparently, the same can’t be said for the ABA’s committee on the future of legal education, at least as far as lawprofs are concerned. At Concurring Opinions, Lawrence Cunningham questions what exactly they were getting at in the working paper:
Obsession with status is a culprit in the woes of today’s American law schools and faculty, the Working Paper finds. It charges law professors with pitching in to redress prevailing woes by working to reduce the role of status as a measure of personal and institutional success.
Much of the rest of the Working Paper is admirable, however, making the two specific recommendations to law faculty not only patently absurd but strange in context.
law professors have just two tasks: becoming informed and demoting status. So there must be some hidden meaning to this idea of status as a culprit and the prescription for prawfs to reduce the importance of status as a measure of success. I am not sure what it is. The Working Paper does not explain or illustrate the concept of status or how to reduce its importance.
Cunningham goes on to give a rather humorous laundry list of typical prestige whoring by lawprofs in order to show the absurdity of the task force’s unspecified hint that prawfs need to focus more on the job of preparing the next gen of lawyers than making themselves the toast of the Legal Academy. What makes this list particularly enjoyable is that it does a better job of reflecting the scholarly mindset than the overly-kind working paper. A small taste of the list:
Given the other problems the Task Force sees with today’s law faculty culture (tenure, scholarship and leadership roles), I guess they are suggesting that faculty stop making it important whether:
* your undergraduate degree is Ivy League level or from a modest state university
* you went to Yale Law School or Yeshiva University’s law school
* you clerked in the Third Circuit and then for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or had an internship with a District Judge in New Jersey
* you won the Sears Prize or eked out magna cum laude
I just had to stop at the “eked out magna cum laude” line, as it was more than I could stand. That Cunningham can simultaneously be so “brilliant” and tone-deaf is remarkable. Perhaps he’s an idiot-savant, utterly incapable of seeing beyond the shallowness of the criteria for prestige in the academy and grasping a core value in the working paper.
A law professor is a teacher. If a law professor can impart to students that which will turn their brains from mush to lawyerly, then he is a successful teacher. Whether he won the Sears Prize or eked out magna cum laude means nothing. Absolutely, totally, completely nothing, as far as his ability to be a good teacher. And this wasn’t clear?
The tacit assumption in Cunningham’s list is that lawprofs need internal criteria to distinguish relative importance among themselves. They are validated by whether they went to Yale or Yeshiva (which, of course, is actually Cardozo, but who would expect a scholar to know such lowly things?). There is so little room to maneuver, so few things of consequence available to scholars to make them stand taller, feel more manly, to be more attractive to the opposite sex, that they fixate on trivial irrelevancies that matter to no one but other lawprofs. They are, once the wagons are circled, terrible prestige whores.
That Cunningham didn’t get the point of the working paper isn’t surprising. Indeed, it’s very much the distinction between calling themselves scholars and teachers. The latter is a lowly aspiration, something anyone with a degree from a pedestrian school can do, while the former is a higher calling, making them the envy of other academics and the first call from reporters of important urban newspapers. How else can the pecking order be established and enforced?
As if to rub his unappreciated brilliance in the faces of the barbarians on the committee, Cunningham snarkily concludes:
Is this the kind of thing the Task Force has in mind in its only concrete specific recommendation for law professors to address challenges in legal education? If so, the Working Paper, despite seeming to be serious in so many ways, is really a bit of a joke.
It is as if the authors propose to remove psychology from organizational behavior.
In his blindness, Cunningham asks the wrong question. The authors don’t propose to remove psychology from organizational behavior, but to expect lawprofs to stop channeling Tinkerbell and grow up. The job is to teach, not to be the most illustrious scholar among the cool-kid scholars. There is no shortage of trivial criteria by which academics judge the size of their respective sex organs, and the failure of the committee to list each one doesn’t mean they weren’t serious. If anything, they expected the smart kids in law school to be smart enough to understand the point.
Because I try to be a generally helpful fellow, and because I have gained a facility at understanding polite and nuanced language and have no problem with explaining it in clear words, I feel a duty to explain to Cunningham, and those who suffer from the same misapprehension of the report, what the paper is trying to say:
Nobody gives a damn about how prestigious you are among the self-proclaimed scholar crowd. Your job as a lawprof is that of a teacher, nothing more. No one cares that you’ve published 1000 articles in the Harvard Law Review following winning whatever prizes make a lawprof glow with pride. What matters is whether you can take a room of kids who have undertaken a course of study that can be financially ruinous and give them every tool needed to become a lawyer.
But, but, but…how will the other lawprofs know how scholarly I am and how much they should admire my greatness?
Everything else is self-serving prestige whoring, that only impresses the other sherry-drinkers at the faculty conclaves. What the paper is saying is “enough about you and your fragile egos. Either teach well or get a real job.” I hope this helps.