Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Hard Landing for Idealism

For some of us older guys -- products of the late 60s - and especially those of us who did not know the ways of the upper classes, the end of idealism is a hard landing. We imagined a profession in which the notion of "public interest" was of some importance.

Granted it is sometimes hard to square  professional education with public subsidization but you can get there. If you do, you imagine each decision to have a common theme:

1. How will this program make students and the public better off.
2. How will this course make students and the public better off.
3. How will this class schedule make students and the public better off.
4. How will this research project make students and the public better off.
5. How will hiring this particular person make students and the public better off.
6. How will granting this person life time employment make students and the public better off.

Those are the idealistic forms of the questions. In 30 years of law teaching I think I can count on my fingers the number of times the questions have been framed in that form or something like it. And, when I have I can count on less that one finger the number of times the discussion stuck to the interests of the students and the public.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about what makes students and the public happier. I mean what makes the students better in their professions. I also want to be clear that part of the end of idealism stems from the public under funding which means law schools have to resort to cheapo sales tactics and advertising to survive. Sure, they do not have to do these things and if they did not see themselves as ends but the means to the end of public service, they would not. And most disappointing of all is that at the head of the advantage takers are the products of the late 60s themselves.

Some examples (a short list) of  things that kill any hope for a public interest goal are these:

1. Confercationing. I've been on this topic quite a bit but does any professor, or dean, every ask "Is my trip justified by any benefit to the students or public." If you are going somewhere to make 10 minutes of off the cuff remarks, the answer is always no. But it goes on and on even by  those who go to church and talk the talk.

2, Caps on class size: Some caps are good, I suppose, but good and what actually happens are different matters. Nearly all classes are better if small. These decisions are typically made on what a professor thinks is best and are not weighed against the costs of crowding in other classes.

3. 4 credit courses scheduled in 2  two hour blocks. I have seen no study that suggests this is sound as a matter of learning. But, even that were shown to be the case, no decision about this seems to be based on an actual examination of the  benefits to the students or public.

5. Law schools throw millions of dollars a year at people who claim to do research. Most of it goes unread and most of it is advocacy for the professors' pet political causes. As far as I know the idea that funding and the importance of the work to the students and the public is a completely foreign one.

6. One thing I have never heard in a tenure and promotion discussion is this: Will giving this person a 30 year employment contract actually benefit the students or the public in some way. The subtext, even if it is sub at all, is do we like this person, is the person politically acceptable, has the person shown he or she will play ball.

If you are an idealist you have to hold your nose, look the other way, or undergo a partial elective lobotomy to survive.

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