Educating Lawyers

No, this isn’t a rant about legal education (though I should do about a dozen of those, shouldn’t I?) It’s about how our educational system pushes bright, talented kids to pursue crap they don’t honestly have a passion for. Like, say, law. And all too many of you know how that ends up—talented people who are depressed, miserable, and not really making use of their innate talents and abilities. Bleah, all the way around.

I got to thinking about this when I read a debate in Jay Matthews’ column in the WaPo, over the education of really and truly gifted kids—the kind who read The Hobbit in first grade, and get it; the kind who can do calculus in sixth grade. THAT KIND of gifted, not just smarter-than-the-average student type of gifted.

Specifically, Matthews was writing about, and readers responding to, the situation of a very bright kid in one of the Virginia suburbs of DC, who has already tested out of basically a year’s worth of college coursework before he has graduated high school. His GPA kind of stinks for his level of ability (a 3.25), largely because he often didn’t complete assignments. Because of that, several colleges have turned up their noses at him, including UVA. He has gotten admitted and a scholarship to some places, and most likely he’ll do OK. I hope so, because the world clearly needs some talented chemical engineers to get us out of our current environmental morass, among other things.

What really got me going were the letter-writers who all rode in on their high horses about how critically important it was that brilliant people FOLLOW THE RULES and do homework and assignments. Because, yanno, you have to follow rules in life and where will you end up if you can’t follow rules? I mean, you might become some derelict like Albert Einstein, for God’s sake. Or even Galileo.

The letter that pissed me off the absolute most was the one from some petty little mother named Madeleine French. OK, I should not call her petty or little, because I don’t know her. But her letter comes off that way. She talks about how one of her daughters, who seems from the letter to be bright and capable, but probably not gifted on a seriously high level, was in a quandary with what she was going to do with her life after graduating from William and Mary. Here’s the exact quote:

When my older daughter, a senior at William and Mary, declared in January that she “didn’t know what to do with the rest of (her) life,” I was positively apoplectic. Her story has a happy ending, too: she’ll be starting law school at Villanova next fall.

I have an alternate interpretation of that happy ending: Here’s yet another person who got pushed into law because it pleased her parents. Within six years, she will more than likely be miserable in law, if the experiences of so many former lawyers I know are any indication. Oh yeah, another victory for mindless societal conformity. Just what the world needs, another lawyer. (Note to anyone considering a counseling or psychology degree: GO FOR IT!!! You have an unending client base with lawyers.)

So let me get this straight, Madeleine French: Your highest and best ambition for your beloved daughter is that she become a cog in the wheel of corporate America?

This kind of fixation on credentials equaling success or quality makes me UTTERLY BATSHIT. Good grades do not imply genius; they simply say that the student had an ability to comprehend the materials and be diligent enough mastering them, and jumping through whatever pedagogical hoops there are to demonstrate that. Now, for most average and slightly above average students, the system works OK, I suppose. And, oh how great and glorious, we get a new generation of people who have been taught how to conform.

[Check out a really great talk by Sir Ken Robinson about how conformity in schools is ruining creativity in kids, just when society is going to need it the most. Also, here’s another great post about the topic at Quinn Creative.]

While our educational system is great for the societal institutions that need conformity to function—government, large corporations, schools, and of course, law firms—conformity doesn’t do much to promote innovation and real, honest-to-God advances and changes in the world. Too bad. With the current environmental, financial, and fuel crises, not to mention the failing war on terrorism, we could really use some original, highly creative thinking to get us out of this sad mess.

Oh, but wait! The original thinkers got ground down by having to dot all their i’s and cross all their t’s, so they have gorgeous penmanship but are also deeply convinced that no one gives a shit about their brilliant solutions. Since the message of conformity is that deviation is not only worthless, but very, very bad. So they blog and eek out a living somehow, maybe even as a lawyer, while their real talents lie wasting away.

Of course some conformity is necessary for society to function. But right now, we’ve completely overdosed on it as a society. We’re testing our children to death and giving them homework largely to make us feel better, because there’s no evidence that homework produces better learning. (As a personal aside, the 3rd graders at my son’s Montessori school do not ever have homework, and yet regularly blow the lid off Tennessee’s standardized tests. The schools that pass out homework like Ritalin, their record is much more mixed, even in wealthy areas. Not that I think standardized tests do much to demonstrate good education. Good teaching to test, maybe. . . but passion for learning, no. And, the United States with its reams of homework still ranks 24th out of 29 developed nations in math education.)

The hostility toward accommodating truly gifted kids by giving them a pass on homework that is the equivalent of reading Dick and Jane as a high school seniors baffles me. We’re quite willing to accommodate learning disabilities, and give some kids longer to complete tests, for example. And we should be doing that. But why can’t it work the other way? Why can’t we just say, OK, extremely gifted/genius student, you can choose your homework, just get your teacher’s approval first? Seems a lot better result for everyone involved—genius kid gets challenged, contributes to class, teacher gets her jollies from having some kind of homework completed, and society ultimately gets an even more productive genius.

The only ones who lose are the bureaucratic noodges. Oh, darn. Well, they can always go to law school.

2 thoughts on “Educating Lawyers

  1. What you just said, pretty much sums up the reason why so many lawyers are depressed.

    How many went to law school b/c they didn’t know what they wanted to do with their life after their bachelors?

    How many went to law school b/c it was their parents dream?

    Thanks for writing this piece.

  2. The problem is people think that just because they get a law degree they have to practice law. A law degree when combined with another degree (medicine, engineering or business for instance) can make for an interesting career in other fields such as an expert witness, patent prosecution, Financial Analyst, etc.

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