Monday, September 29, 2008

Are One Chance Students the Victims of Unlimited Chance Professors?

In the last two posts I presented excerpts from The Disadvantages of An Elite Education by William Deresiewicz.

Perhaps the most powerful observation from that article follows:

" . . . [T]he way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm—I’ve heard of all three—will get you expelled. The feeling is that, by gosh, it just wouldn’t be fair—in other words, the self-protectiveness of the old-boy network, even if it now includes girls. Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.” A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity. It’s another one of those metaphors, not so much a grade as a promise. It means, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You may not be all that good, but you’re good enough."

What happens when unlimited chance people teach one chance people? They are likely setting them up for failure. Unfortunately, when law schools hire they salivate over elite, unlimited chance people who are likely to treat their one chance students as though they too have unlimited chances. As I have described over on Moneylaw, the effect is to create disabilities. When teachers have no deadlines, give out only high grades, and have low classroom expectations, they lead students to believe there are no consequences for being a slacker. That is true if mommy and daddy supply a life long safety net. But for students who are not similarly situated it can be a trap.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Does an Elite Education Produce Anti Intellectuals

In my previous post I quoted the initial two paragraphs of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz. Maybe the most important passage of that article for those in legal education comes near the end.

"But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive. Aren’t kids at elite schools the smartest ones around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don’t they work harder than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework."

Deresiewicz follows this paragraph with a description of elite school students as roughly the equivalent of grade grubbing drones. My sense is that this is a relatively recent thing. At some point in time, attending an elite school could contribute to the development of real intellectual curiosity and a love for ideas. I am sure that still holds for many graduates of elite schools but that is more a testament to their resistance to the elite education than anything else. From my perspective, and it is an admittedly narrow one, I am surprised at how anti intellectual newer elite grads are, especially the double elites. In fact, in many instances they seem to have little or no knowledge of history, philosophy, art, etc. Nor do they find much that is interesting outside of their personal niche.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Disadvantages of the Elite

The following two paragraphs are taken from The Disadvantages of An Elite Education by William Deresiewicz. It is from the Summer 08 issue of American Scholar.

Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

It's a terrific article.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Clarence Palin Problem

One of the most discouraging things I have experienced in my profession was the realization that "diversity" did not really mean diversity. Several years ago a recruiting committee of which I was Chair made what is to my mind the most extreme effort ever made to hire diversity candidates. Of course, not everyone was on board. We were, however, able to find a candidate who was willing to interview with us who seemed to cover every base -- elite school, high class rank, minority. Who could oppose such a candidate especially after a fine job talk.? Actually, to my shock, those opposed were the most aggressive about diversity. It seems the candidate may have uttered a few words in an interview session that indicated he would not always toe the line when it came to political issues.

The idea that I had often heard that even "facial" diversity was important went out the window when he was revealed to have conservative views on some issues.

It really is amazing how calls for racial or gender diversity grow silent when the candidate fails a particular litmus test. As we know from the Clarence Thomas episode, it never really was about being an African American. Politics was more important than race. Having gone through that experience, what was John McCain thinking. Was his thought process really that Hillary voters were so wedded to gender as her main appeal that they would switch to Palin when Hillary was not nominated. Give me a break!

Race and gender may carry some weight with the choir but they are always second to ideology.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Uppity?

"Uppity" is a word I have never heard used except in the context of discussions about the word "uppity." I see in the press that it is used from time to time to describe people who are asking for greater respect and deference than they somehow deserve. I think someone in Georgia was quoted as saying Barak Obama is uppity.

I looked in the dictionary for the word uppity and it was "affecting an attitude of inflated self-esteem; haughty, snobbish; rebelliously self-assertive; not inclined to be tractable of deferential." I would not have been surprised to see the same definition after the word "elitist."

Clearly this is not Barak Obama. In fact he is the opposite. He appear to be "affecting an attitude of a deflated self-esteem" so in can appeal to the rank and file.

In reality what uppity means (how can the dictionary get it so wrong?) is not knowing that one's place is below that of those calling you uppity. Thus, when applied by a white person to a black person because the person is black is it is unconditional racist.

I suspect, though, that if white upper class people ever used the word in the disparaging way is it is normally used they would be referring to Sarah Palin. In fact, most of the pot shots and eye rolling from elitist whites are clearly ways of communicating that she is uppity.

For me she is like a thousand finger nails scraping across the blackboard, two hundred cars next to me at a red light all playing the bass so loud that my fillings are rattling and a really large person next to me on a 8 hour flight but not uppity. Slap a Harvard degree on her and change nothing else and she would not be uppity to them either.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sarah Palin and O.J. Simpson

I am not sure I have seen anything like the Sarah Palin phenomenon since O.J. Simpson. Most of you are old enough to recall that the evidence against OJ was overwhelming. Whether you though he "should" be found guilty as opposed to whether he was guilty seemed largely a function of race. (I have to exempt myself on this because I think it is possible that reasonable doubt did exist.) OJ became a symbol, so much so that he transcended guilt and innocence. Eye witnesses would have made no difference.

Now there is the O.J.'s opposite in Sarah Palin. No matter how utterly ill-prepared she is to be President or Vice President, it does not matter to her supporters. Like O.J. she is a big "screw you" from one group to another. The "evidence" is irrelevant. Well, not exactly. The more it is revealed how unsuited she is, the more she becomes an even better big screw you from one group to another and, thus, more popular. In fact, the delight in her nomination is directly related to how much angst she stirs up in those who oppose her.

Hopefully Palin supporters who could not fathom finding OJ not guilty can reflect a bit now and see that they are engaged in the same kind behavior. They can offer explanations just as OJ's apologists did but their "reasoning" will be just as shallow.

My only question is how long people like myself will be required to pay the price for so many admittedly ill-conceived initiatives in the 60s.

Monday, September 08, 2008

What to do about Levi Johnston?

When it was revealed that Sarah Palin's daughter was pregnant, I, like many parent did not jump to condemn mother or daughter but thought "there but for the grace of God . . . ." I don't have daughters but it's the same thing when you hear of a son who has been caught drinking underage or smoking dope or far worse things. Until you have teenage children, I am not sure you can understand how little control you actually have.

On the other hand, I do not know a sensible parent who does have some feel for the values of the people their kids hang out with. It's impossible to police and you can call it helicoptering but it falls well short of real helicoptering -- like the mother who calls to complain about her son's grade.

So what to make of Levi that gun-toting, "I don't want kids (who thinks they do at 18), "Ya f - - - with me I'll kick [your] ass," I'm a f - - -in' redneck," maybe future son in law of the maybe future President? It is possible for a daughter to be close enough to someone so angry to be having sex and not have attentive parents notice? Or maybe Levi and the possible future first dude just hang together.

For me at least, executive experience starts at home and, if you try, some but not all things can be averted. Having your daughter hang with someone who definitely appears to be a bully and cannot find a condom suggests screwed up priorities or bad management.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What To Do About Sarah Palin

A colleague who is a regular reader came by my office today. "Jeff," he said, "I cannot believe some of the things people are saying about Sarah Palin. You and I both know that if she only had a degree from Harvard or Yale, most of that criticism would go away."

When I challenged that comment, the response and one that I found hard to answer was "All Bill Clinton needed to clean up his act in the eyes of elitists was a fancy degree. She is no more a "bubba" than he is. This is all about class."

I think he is right in one respect. And I am also sure that her selection for VP by McCain is the most cynical act I have seen recently by a politician because of what it assumes about the basic American voter. The one respect in which he is right is that the discussion is all about class. In fact, it has reached ridicule level.

I am not even remotely tempted to vote for her despite my Schadenfreudidan tendencies that rage when the analysis of the elitists go no further than where she went to school, her pregnant daughter, her snowmobiling husband, and all the other things that they find appalling. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see them sweat if she had all of that and her Yale degree.

I cannot vote for her because I disagree with almost everything that comes out of her mouth. From their discussions it seems that elitists will not vote for her, not because of her ideals, but because she should know better than to aspire to something outside her reach.