Legally Obsolete: Education

If the purpose of law school is to teach students to become legal thinkers, lawyers, then Washburn University lawprof Rory Bahadur’s complaint misses the mark. No one is blaming students for being dumber than dirt. We’re blaming academics, Bahadur included, for doing a lousy job of either teaching them or, if they’re unteachable, handing them a dime.

But rather than think, at the curiously named site Institute for Law Teaching and Learning, he tells us dinosaurs to die graciously.

Most of us have heard the lament from colleagues that, “Because K-12 and undergraduate has changed so much since we went to school, students enter law school today undereducated and so unaccustomed to rigor, that law schools need to invest an inordinate amount of time just to enable students to be competent at the things that lawyers need to do.”  Corollary comments are:  students can’t write, and their grammar is deficient yada yada yada.

Taken to its logical extreme, this sentiment means the practice of law and civilization is essentially dead because kids no longer learn the things needed to become successful lawyers.

Well, no, that’s not the logical extreme at all. Bahadur’s ham-handed attempt at rhetoric notwithstanding. Law schools need to be more selective in their admissions, more brutal in vetting the ranks of those who will never have the capacity to practice law and more rigorous in their efforts. But with a prawf like Bahadur, there’s little faith that it either can, or will, happen.

After indulging in the sort of logical fallacy that earns college sophomores an F, pointing out certainties of the past have proven wrong while ignoring that other certainties have proven right, Bahadur reveals his shocking truth.

The first assumption is there is value to the minutia of grammar and our students are deficient because their grammar and punctuation skills are not “like ours were.”  A counter narrative, however, says ‘Grammar is classist, it’s ableist, and it’s oppressive. It reeks of privilege, and those who spend their time correcting others’ grammar do too.”[1]  One wonders whether Shakespearean elitists of the 16th century could ever imagine that “thine grammar would become archaic and clumsy.”  Grammar may also be a race-based check on valuation of individuals according to their conformance with an artificial social construct.

While the nasty voice in the back of my head says that the grammar and punctuation skills of today’s students are very much like Bahadur’s. He indulges in an argument so facially bad that it should preclude him not only from teaching, but being anywhere near young people for fear that he’s contagious.* Of all the basic skills required to practice law, the ability to communicate in writing is likely the most important. At least the dinosaurs and judges say so.

Grammar is classist, it’s ableist, and it’s oppressive. It reeks of privilege, and those who spend their time correcting others’ grammar do too.

Damn right it’s oppressive. It’s hard and people who can’t communicate in writing in a way that clearly sends the message the reader needs to hear fail as communicators, as a lawyer. Is that racist? Perhaps. If you accept that African American Vernacular English is an established alternative dialect, then why shouldnt they be allowed to start their motions with “yo”?

Of course, only the flaming narcissist can’t reason out why a communication that is squishy and vague, devoid of rules and, most importantly, not consistent with everyone else in the law, most notably judges, would be an absolute failure.

Bahadur looks to today’s student writers, incompetent in such oppressive skills as grammar and punctuation, and tells everyone else that they need to stop their oppressive expectations of students and lower their demands for competency. It’s not that students can’t write proper English but that lawyers and judges should lower their expectations and dumb down their own privileged competencies. That no one would have a clue what anyone else was saying is irrelevant. The kids know what they’re trying to say, and like Humpty Dumpty, that should be close enough for the dinosaurs.

But the oppression of grammar and punctuation is hardly the only failing of the dinoaurs.

The second assumption is that today’s students don’t know how to work.  I will suggest here that what efficient and hard work was 10 years ago is in large part inefficient and archaic today.  Today’s students have instant access to information that we had to “work hard” to get.  As a result, what we envision as “productive hard work,” needed to get information is now inefficient and useless because they can ask Siri and get the same information.  Their time is better spent creatively using information rather than memorizing and obtaining it.

On the one hand, he’s almost right when he says access to information is entirely different today than it was a decade (or five) ago. It’s all there, online, if you know where to look. Whether Siri can be trusted to explain the fertile octogenerian rule is another matter, but Bahadur is apparently unaware that it’s not just the speed of accessing Marbury v. Madison, but the capacity to understand it in context with the Constitution. In the course of “learning law,” we learn to think, to reason. Any idiot can google the words, but very few can appreciate them and apply them properly, and fewer still can do so in context of the myriad other concerns, such as rules of statutory construction or procedure.

Finally, Bahadur gets to the crux of his point.

Much of the research on Millennials and Generation Z suggests that professors who have information and pass on knowledge are viewed as close to useless by today’s students. In order to engage these students, we need to provide context and demonstrate how information and knowledge is useful in current and relevant ways.  That’s not their fault.  Knowing stuff is no longer a big deal but the creative use of the information everyone has access to is what’s important today.

These are the same students who are so lacking in a rigorous education that grammar and punctuation are beyond their capacity. But they view education as “close to useless.” Of course they do. It’s hard and requires effort, things they hate and have never been willing to do. Bahadur’s view is that legal eduction should be reduced to appeal to the laziest, most ignorant student in the room.

But still, I don’t blame the student. I blame the teacher. If law students fail miserably, it’s because they have professors like Bahadur, who can neither write nor reason, and thus can’t possibly teach that to students or determine whether students have gained the competencies necessary to become lawyers. Sound education is hardly legally obselete. Ignorant apologists for failure, on the other hand, we could do without.

*As much as throwing around words like racism is easy to the point of meaninglessness, it would appear that Bahadur is quite flagrant in his “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Does he really think black students are too dumb to learn grammar and punctuation?

22 thoughts on “Legally Obsolete: Education

  1. Kirk A Taylor

    I wrote my first tax book in 2014. I had an editor review it before publishing. Her notes were illuminating and soul crushing. My favorite was, “Did you mean to say this? Because that’s what your you said.”

  2. Elpey P.

    This guy needs a lesson in logical extremes.

    Why should a bus driver need to be a good driver? Traffic laws are just a social construct.

    Why should composers and musicians be evaluated on their musical abilities? Music theory and performance are just social constructs.

    Why should managers be knowledgeable of sexual harassment policy? It’s just a social construct.

    Notably he only has a single cite, and it’s to an article by…a student. Her socially constructed progressive perspective? “The fact of the matter is, sounding ‘White’ equates to being educated.” I’d say she deserves a little bit of blame, but blame is a social construct.

  3. wilbur

    Mmmmmmm … ham-handed.

    As far as legal research, a lawyer needs to know the correct question to ask. That’s the real trick: recognizing the issues. I don’t think Siri can answer that for you.

    A lawyer needs to know how to communicate in writing clearly and concisely. Duh.

    1. Lee

      You beat me to it, sir.

      “It’s all there, online, if you know where to look” assumes you know WHAT to look for (and what to do with it when you get it).

      It is this kind of thinking that leads to attorneys citing head notes instead of reading the damned case. (I love it when opposing counsel does it).

      But hell, it makes life easier for those of us who can read, reason and write, instead of just regurgitating what we see on the Internet. It just doesn’t help their clients.

      1. SHG Post author

        You’re still thinking like a lawyer, Lee. Non-lawyers are always quoting the pithy but vague words of the dissent, often on entirely unrelated areas of law, about due process or human dignity, which naturally means they win. You’re at least talking about headnotes to cases on point. They’re off in some other universe.

  4. Random Wine Geek

    “Knowing stuff is no longer a big deal but the creative use of the information everyone has access to is what’s important today.”

    The “creative” ways in which an ignorant person will use items or ideas he doesn’t understand has evolved from a comedic trope into a defining characteristic of post-modern academia. I weep for the future of our species.

    1. SHG Post author

      Do you have a clue what he’s talking about with “creative” ways? Does that mean baby lawyers should mime their motions, maybe interpretive dance?

      1. Random Wine Geek

        I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about and I don’t think he does either. I think he is using “creative” as a buzzword, reflecting how it has been detached from its historic meaning. He seems to share the romantic but fallacious notion that ignorance fuels creativity. While there are certainly examples of discoveries being made by people who stumble upon a solution or idea because they didn’t know better than to look where they were looking, there are far more examples of such people walking off cliffs, dying of exposure, and being mauled by bears.

        In more than two decades of practicing law, I’ve found that valuable examples of creativity almost always require a very precise and detailed understanding of the law. On the other hand, creativity without the knowledge to develop ideas and discern their value is a sure path to violating what a long-time colleague calls the “first stupid idiot rule” (i.e., don’t be the first stupid idiot to be humiliated by the court for making this ridiculous argument).

        With law school curricula based primarily on learning legal principles by examining real world cases (at least for substantive classes as opposed to the “Law and _____” ones I tried to avoid), I’m also at a loss as to what “current and relevant ways” would better serve “to provide context and demonstrate how information and knowledge is useful.” Do we need Palsgraf, International Shoe, and Daubert emojis?

        1. SHG Post author

          How cool would a Pagsgraf emoji be? International shoe, not so much.

          I remember going to a Picasso museum where I saw some of his earlier works. They were masterful paintings, but realistic. Before he went blue or cubist, he was a master at painting. Only then did he go down his own path.

          1. Angrychiatty

            Oooooh. Look at you. You went to a “Picasso museum” did you?

            God, how incredibly classist of you.

  5. DaveL

    Grammar may also be a race-based check on valuation of individuals according to their conformance with an artificial social construct.

    Critical race theorists may well turn up their noses at “artificial social constructs”, but you teach the law. The entire enterprise is, by definition, an artificial social construct.

      1. AE

        Wearing clothes in public is a socially constructed rule. It doesn’t mean anyone would be better off if they were forced to gaze upon my pasty white grub-flesh.
        Even if the rule is arbitrary, we could all be better off as long as we all adopt it. A common language of sorts.

          1. Random Wine Geek

            I’m outraged by your reference to a paean to rape culture!

            And thanks for the opportunity to demonstrate a modern example of creativity.

  6. bl1y

    I accept my share of the blame for this situation.

    I rarely teach grammar in my freshman composition seminars. Instead I basically run it as an intro to analytical philosophy class, because before you learn to write better, you’ve got to first learn how to have something worth writing. You can’t teach clay sculpting if you don’t first get some damn clay.

    Unfortunately, the end result is usually students who show up at the end of the semester saying they couldn’t find any clay, and asking if it’d be okay to turn in some finger paint pictures instead, because they think their finger paint technique is very good — they’ve been working on it for 12+ years.

    (Incidentally, our department has bought in whole hog on the idea that language standards are racist.)

    1. SHG Post author

      And incomprehensible writing is somehow more diverse and inclusive. The ramifications are stunning.

      I remember the consequences of “new math,” kids graduating high school without the capability of doing multiplication or division correctly. Somehow, academics didn’t see why that might be a problem for their futures. Who’s to blame for this scenario?

      In fourth grade, we were drilled in punctuation rules and the “times tables.” Rote memorization. We hated it. But later, when we needed to know it, we did. Maybe not doing this for students is what’s racist.

  7. Terence Roberts

    Whenever I hear/read comments about “today kids don’t know anything,” etc., I recollect Socrates:
    “Our youth now live in luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They contradict their parents, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

    1. SHG Post author

      On the one hand, “kids today” has been a refrain of every generation forever. On the other, Socrates didn’t have the internet or re-engineering of human nature to ignore evolution to contend with.

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