Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Common Thread

One debate that I have each year (and lose) concerns the fascination law school hiring committees have with candidates with elite credentials. Schools at the level of mine and lower only rarely attract candidates who graduated from top ranked schools at the top of their classes. Thus, the decision is between lower (and sometimes very low ranked) graduates from elite schools and the tip top graduates from other schools. By "other schools" I do not mean bad ones. No, I mean ones maybe just outside the top 10. Still, it continues -- the brand name trumps almost every other indicator of intellect and work ethic.

This is not a matter of relying on an accurate indicator of success. A little study I did last year indicated that elite grads at mid level schools are no more productive than the hand full of non elite grads. In addition, on average I think elite grads are less well educated that non elite grads who end up teaching at mid level schools. The elites (again, on average, not uniformly) seem to be narrowly educated. Very few seem to be able to talk about art, history, politics or any thing other than a very narrow range of topics. (They also seem relatively humorless -- not an irreverent bone to be found -- but that is another story.) They seem more technicianish.

I did a little study of all this with the goal of determining why non elites seem seem have more going for them than the elites. The only factor I have been able to come up with so far is that the non elites in legal education are very likely to have been, as children, and continue to be voracious readers. They are basically self-educated. Elites can also be voracious readers and self-educated but they do not have to be to be law professors.

This means a number of things but the most important thing is that somewhere somehow, hard-wired or socialized, they were intellectual curious. Learning itself was a reward and not because to meant getting an A or performing well as a "trophy child."

So, if I were on a hiring committee, what I would ask in addition to the lists I have posted before that were designed find to lower socioeconomic class people would be:

1. What was your favorite book at age 15.
2. What were the last 10 books you read that had nothing to do with law.
3. Name your favorite opera, aria, symphony or any non pop, folk, alt music.
4. Who was your favorite teacher before law school and why?

and finally,

5. How would a Rawlsian design the faculty recruitment process?


eric said...

Those are excellent questions, and I will make a point of posing some or all of them to the candidates we have coming to visit.

Admiral said...

Dear Professor,

I certainly agree with your sentiment here. It's a darn shame that the hiring committee won't get it right. Several of the best hires have been from the top of their *state* schools; but even these people are guilty of the crime you describe. It seems to me they just desperately want to be associated with that Elite (to use your word) milieu.

As far as the questions you'd ask, it reminds me of a favorite excerpt from The Little Prince, which talked about how sometimes important information falls by the wayside:

“Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, the demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”

Anonymous said...

Your point is well taken. It seems the same logic would apply to law students as well. Although they far outnumber the staff, they seem to be trophies in their own right. Perhaps those 5 questions should be added to the application process as well.

Also - As to question 5, who would be the better candidate: The optimist who believes that people can actually succeed under Rawls' Original Position and operate under the Veil Of Ignorance to create justice? Or, the realist/cynic who recognizes the impossibility of the experiment? Or, a third option: they are equally good, simply because they know not only who John Rawls is but his theory as well?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I'll take the third option -- that they know and can talk about it.