Law in Contemporary Society
I found this series of interviews by Alain de Botton directly relevant to our recent discussions regarding our law school experience and the challenges faced during our 1L year and in choosing a career. In particular, I think the second video, with its discussion of the historical superiority of religious institutions over universities in offering genuinely valuable life advice, is particularly interesting in the way it relates education to the idea Eben discussed in class of law being a weak social force. Perhaps it is precisely because religious and cultural institutions provide more valuable life guidance than formal educational programs that they exert such a relatively strong influence over normative social discourse compared to, say, ethicists or political scientists. If that is the case, then De Botton's proposals can be seen as attempts to implant respect for formal education (and the law) in younger generations to the point that their formative influence eventually exceeds countervailing religious and cultural forces. If that is his goal, I believe achieving it requires a far broader review of the politicization of the schooling process beyond the moral/spiritual guidance he emphasizes. Current debates regarding charter schools, high-stakes testing and educational inequality tend to gloss over the surface of what appear to me to be more fundamental and pressing issues - lack of democratic student participation, inequity of access, and the poorly defined role of the state in child welfare. Unless those more fundamental institutional questions are addressed, how can we expect our education system to promote democratically active, tolerant citizens of a global community?

-- RohanGrey - 29 Mar 2012

Rohan, this is a really interesting series. As both Wright and de Botton touch on in the first video, most atheist literature out there is a lot less favorable to religion as an institution than de Botton seems to be. I agree that his look at practical education/self-improvement in religion vs. conventional schooling is particularly noteworthy and (at least to me) quite novel. And I think your conclusion about the influence of religion on social discourse being a result of its position as a life adviser is spot on. However, I think you go a little bit too far in suggesting that de Botton is ultimately trying to bolster respect for formal education in such a way that it supplants religion. Maybe as an atheist he wants this, but as a theorist of policy he seems more tolerant of religion as an institution (and says as such) and more focused on what we can learn from religion. His path for giving more credibility and significance to education is more of a top-down approach, whereas yours seems more bottom-up. I agree with you that the questions you asked regarding the inequities of education and its failure to achieve a democratic populace are certainly worth asking and devoting a lot of energy toward, but to me de Botton's message is simpler; he seems less focused on how to make society better and more focused on how to make school better. Of course they go hand-in-hand, but if you asked him how to make society better, even through formal education, I'm not so sure he wouldn't agree with you that the bottom-up approach must be the start of it.

JohnBarker? - 15 April 2012

Hi John, thanks for that. I didn’t mean to imply that De Botton wants to supplant institutional religion entirely, although I think it is quite likely he wants to indirectly transform it. His fond reference in the second video to the “culture instead of scripture” movement, for example, indicates (in my opinion) an eagerness to increase the influence of education systems in traditionally non-academic spheres of life. Wouldn’t this diminish the relative influence of other competing sources of guidance? I think that a zero-sum calculus is appropriate when measuring influence of various institutions on patterns of social behavior – perhaps that partially explains our different viewpoints.

I don’t understand the distinctions you are making in terms of improving society versus improving schools. My point was that De Botton laments the lack of ethical guidance in schools, but does not address the question of how that ethical guidance should be developed (in this interview at least - perhaps he has commented on this in other writings. I will look further). So my question still stands in a school-limited context – how can we foster democratic and tolerant values in children without addressing the fundamental hypocrisy of the intolerant and undemocratic structure of the schooling system?

Maybe this is what you were talking about in regards to top-down and bottom-up approaches, and maybe De Botton does agree with a bottom-up approach more than I suggest. I don’t, however, see any evidence of such agreement in this interview.

-- RohanGrey - 16 April 2012

My point is limited, that de Botton actually does address the question of how the ethical guidance should be developed, at least on the surface, in suggesting that we change our school curricula to improve the practical learning environment of formal education (as ridiculous as some of his specific suggestions seem to me). What I mean in saying that he might agree with you in the necessity of a bottom-up approach (and I agree this viewpoint certainly isn't expressed in the videos) is that these videos aren't in the first place fundamentally about fostering democratic and tolerant views in children. I guess my point is that I'm watching the interviews with a more limited scope than you, not taking his conclusion that we can improve formal education by looking at religious institutions much beyond the confines of that specific conclusion. I agree with you that there are other questions to ask, probably more important ones, if our goal is democratic and tolerant children on the whole, I'm just suggesting that de Botton in these videos is more concerned with improving education for individual students.

I still think the analysis you made in your initial post, that perhaps the practicality of education from religious institutions is part of the reason why religious forces have so much societal influence and why the law is a weak social force, is really spot on.

- JohnBarker? - 16 April 2012

Right, I understand. My emphasis on the ineffectiveness of exclusively curricular-focused reform and the inextricability of civil values to personal development is an attempt to move the conversation to the next level. If you're interested, I just came across this fascinating article that looks at these issues within the context of law school, written by Harvard Law's Lani Guinier and our own Susan Sturm.

-- RohanGrey - 16 April 2012

It's amazing how relevant that article is to this class. I found especially interesting the assertion that "internalizing the culture of competition and conformity desensitizes students to their internal compass" (p. 540) and the further analysis of that comment, that students feel "pressured by the culture to succeed by outperforming others in narrow, prescribed terms" (p. 542). Obviously it is a large part of the reason why "grades are bad" that the competitive framework of law school so much strengthens the "biglaw or bust" culture and makes it much more difficult to take alternate routes.

I like this article because it so comprehensively lays out a lot of the reasons why the law school/biglaw culture isn't what it should be. It scares me to a little bit to see that money becomes the next extrinsic, competition-based reward for continuing to play the game. I am not a terribly creative person, but I still want to feel like i have some autonomy, and this article reinforces the somewhat obvious idea that if you just follow the path you're "supposed" to take, you lack autonomy. Still, my own lack of creativity is worrisome, because I like having things and I have some anxiety that I don't have what it takes to have lots of things if I don't follow the path laid out for me. I'm skeptical about doing well while doing good.

Anyway, my personal feelings about the issues the authors discuss aside, this article is indeed an interesting look at the problems of curricular reform. Adding classes doesn't really change a lot independently of changing the culture and incentive structure of law school because within the confines of the competitive framework it's still very difficult to escape the narrow path. I agreed with the importance of the questions you asked in your original post, but considering them again in light of this new article I think they're especially compelling. If curricular reform doesn't accomplish what reformers wish it to accomplish in law school, perhaps it wouldn't in college either, suggesting that de Botton's emphasis might be misguided.

- JohnBarker? - 16 April 2012

I think the emphasis on money as the next form of competition is a bit misplaced and not quite the issue the article was describing. Money becomes used because it is easy to compare and does have some tangible benefits, but in the absence of real differences in money law students and lawyers would still try to find ways to distinguish their success. Pretty much all big firms pay the same to associates, but there is still competition to work at the "elite" firms. Journals, clerkships, and nonfirm jobs, based on my impressions, also seem to be subject to competition based on perceptions of prestige rather than the skills they provide and what sort of fit they are for an individual.

The point I disagree with the authors of the article about is that this is necessarily unique to law school and the legal profession. Other professional schools, like medical school and business school, do seem to mitigate this by having more of an emphasis on teamwork. Perhaps this is an area where law school can better emulate these schools by changing the structure of the class to put more of an emphasis on collaborative learning. But med and business students still compete for the most prestigious and highest paying jobs and residencies and fellowships, often in conflict with what they feel is the best fit or what makes them most fulfilled.

I think that reflects a more fundamental social issue, which is that the professionals of our society have been brought up being taught to tie self-esteem to "achievement". From elementary school on, every year brings its grades and tests, praise for good numbers or letters, disapproval for bad ones. Most parents of professionals put pressure on them to get into and attend the "good" schools, sometimes in particularly ridiculous situations like NYC as early as elementary or middle school, and this continues with jobs and even other facets of life, like what neighborhood someone chooses to live in or the performance of their own children in the same absurd system. Professionals generally thrive in this system to get where they are and therefore tend to create an even further entanglement between achievement and self-esteem. While university and professional students may need life guidance the most urgently, it might also be too late at that point. What we are really in need of is an overhaul of our education system from the Prussian model of creating obedient industrial workers to one to create happier and more creative citizens.

It's unfortunate that most of the emphasis on education reform instead is focused on how to expand this structure to encompass the teachers as well instead of trying to eliminate it. Part of the problem might be the political influence of industry, which needs skilled and anxious workers a lot more than it needs creative and active citizens, but I think the bigger problem is that most parents would rather see the continuation of this system. They were brought up with the system and often to them the "success" of their children adds to their own success and consequently self-esteem, not to mention the inherent resistance to changing traditions. I'm not sure how one would go about trying to persuade the public of the need for change, but maybe a start would be reminding the world that neither the education system nor law school are in Lake Wobegon.

-- DanielKetani - 18 Apr 2012


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