Wednesday, February 11, 2009

back to school (part one)

A witty Englishman is supposed to have remarked that, after spending a year in Paris, he learned relatively little about France, but a great deal about England. I felt this way when--seeking an outlet more reflective than politics--I enrolled in a course at a local rabbinical college on modern Jewish philosophy. The first meeting was this morning and, while I hardly an expert on modern Jewish philosophy (at least not yet), I immediately noticed a lot about law school and how it differs from other learning establishments.

One difference was sartorial. Perhaps anticipating a high-paying career, law students (and teachers) tend to look pretty sharp even when they are trying not to. At the rabbinical college, everyone seemed to look dowdy even when they were trying to look sharp. (Or perhaps they weren't trying: the college in question is known as a center of offbeat thinking, its founder having expressed questions about the very existence of God, which is perhaps one reason its courses are so good.)

The other difference was how the class was conducted. Rabbinical students do something I have never observed in twenty years of law teaching: they let the professor talk. My own students will regularly interrupt or berate me even if it is simply to repeat an unclear point or to clarify an illegible item on the blackboard. By contrast, students today tended to speak when spoken to, and even then with great respect, which the instructor merited but still wouldn't have gotten at your average law school. In fairness, the material--essentially the history of western philosophy in two hours--did not lend itself to easy questions, but that wouldn't have stopped my students, anyway.

Perhaps this is one reason that so many presidential candidates--Obama and both the Clintons come to mind--were not only lawyers but at least part-time law professors. Whatever else one can say about law profs, they are used to people disagreeing with them. Posner, MacKinnon, Karl Llewellyn, you name it--everyone has had a good or not-so-good student raise their hand, give them a hard time about some point or other, and live to tell the tale. The experience of George W. Bush, who appears to have been genuinely stunned that Kerry talked back to him in the 2004 debates, is simply not part of our collective experience. Whether this makes lawyers (or law professors) better politicians is anyone's guess. But at least they come prepared.


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