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.” 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?