Law in Contemporary Society

Law School Numbers

-- By JonathanBoustani - 13 Feb 2008

Intro: Form over Substance

In truth, there are only two items on a law school application that boards of admission pay any attention to: GPA and LSAT score.

  • In truth, the LSAT score by itself does most of the admission-predicting.

In this system, earning good grades becomes a student’s primary focus. In an ideal world, the end to which students should strive is a mastery of the subject matter. In reality, however, the desire to learn is often supplanted by the desire to get an A. Due to the institutionalization of grades and tests scores as the measuring stick of academic merit, substance has been sacrificed for form in the education system in general and law schools in particular.

  • This is the conventional proposition, but does it actually make any sense at the upper end of the performance curve, where we are in this conversation, talking about a selection in which half comes from the top half percent of the tail?

Grades as focus instead of education and the Regrettable Consequences

The role of grades in the education system becomes avidly apparent upon entering high school. Teachers and parents repeatedly stress the importance of good grades. Students are told good grades in high school lead to a good university which leads to a better university and eventually a respectable, well-paying job. In short, good grades lead to respectable jobs. Nowhere in this plan is the relative importance of actual learning stressed. Top grades are the goal. Universities and job markets have made it this way. They make grades the ultimate measure of a student’s worth. Recognizing this, teachers, students, and schools make grades the benchmark of achievement. This leads to a number of unwanted results in our education system and our society.

  • Maybe. Again, this makes more sense as an explanation of the conduct of those who must struggle to achieve what the world considers commendable but not outstanding outcomes. How the motivations of exceptional students are constituted, and what it is they actually apply themselves to learning, should be discussed directly, not by analogy to everyone else. I doubt that the reason your generation of talented students has read so much less than I did is that there was more emphasis placed on grades in your childhood. There may well have been, but I don't think that made the difference. If you didn't love learning, that made the difference, and it wasn't relevant if you did love learning how often they tested you or what the tests were about.

Devaluation of Academic Degrees

One of these regrettable consequences is the devaluation of academic degrees. A high school degree is worth less than it was 50 years ago. This is due partly to the increasing requirements for specialized knowledge in job markets. However, for the most part, this can be attributed to a decrease in the quality of education received at high schools around the nation. In high school, teachers often teach to the lowest common denominator in a classroom of mixed abilities. This often works to the detriment of all students involved. Better students are not challenged while mediocre students are not pushed. Rather than attaining a mastery of high school subjects, students reach only a minimum competency. They must often take a number of remedial courses in college to fill gaps left by a substandard(relative to many other developed nations) high school education.

  • Why high school degrees have lost market value should be of no concern to you, given the supposed philosophic position of the essay. In fact, nothing interior to the schooling process dictated that outcome, but rather the transition from an industrial society that needed skilled workers requiring no further general education than a rigorous high school degree, to a knowledge-production society that requires advanced symbol manipulating capacity in the majority of workers, and rigorous engineering capacity for the manipulation of physical materials and information infrastructure in the large minority. High school plays little role in forming either of those worker types, because it is not directed--as it should be once the need for higher education is assumed--to the intensive cultivation of basic knowledge and the inculcation of personal enthusiasm for whatever forms of more advanced learning the individual mind seems most likely to succeed at.

Focus on Grades leads to Absenteeism and Acts as a Disincentive for Actual Learning

This devaluation in degrees does not stop at high school. It continues on to many degrees procured from reputable colleges and universities. In this environment, the focus on grades leads students to exert the minimum effort to achieve a desired grade. Students will often slack off during the course of the semester and then cram for finals. Soon after the exam, however, students will forget all but the rudiments of what they learned in the past semester. As a corollary to this type of behavior in college, absenteeism rises and learning diminishes as a classroom is deprived of the voices, opinions, and ideas of numerous students. A degree earned through repetition of such acts leads to a student who has nothing but a simplistic grasp of the material that he should have mastered in order to acquire such a degree.

  • By hypothesis this is true only of those for whom the learning process is neither compatible with nor more interesting than smoking pot. Very intelligent young adults who have learned to love learning and are presented with it in profusion will take advantage of that opportunity. If they are helped to choose their curriculum intelligently--including by being left to discover for themselves how to balance their vices and their experiments against the known desirability of learning--society will get, from the small cohort it started with, a very substantial proportion in prime intellectual and moral condition. But you're supposed to know all this, because you're the one proposing yourself as rising superior to grades, right?

Grade Inflation and Eradication of Meaningful Distinctions between Students

Another deplorable result of institutions’ unholy enshrinement of grades and test scores is grade inflation. Differences in grades come to mean less and meaningful distinctions between students cease to exist. In high school the trend of grade inflation means that students are receiving higher and higher grades while doing nothing to deserve them. In law school, the range of grades is narrowed to B- to A+. Nobody fails. Mediocrity is rewarded. Minimal labor can lead to a passing mark. This leads many students to put forth significantly less than their best effort. The grade scale becomes top-heavy and the majority of students receive grades in the B range. Distinctions between students are cut down so that law schools can maintain a reputation for academic excellence. This system demonstrates an institutional organization that once again favors form over substance.

  • What possible difference can grade inflation make? If when Harvard was primarily the institutional expression of New England's need for Congregational ministers, 10% of the graduating class was passed out into the world "cum laude," and now that Harvard's graduating classes contain a sizeable proportion of the world's academic and governmental elite, in most schools something north of half the class is so distinguished, so damn what? The outcome is not only not deplorable, it might even be justified under the meritocracy's own highest standards. But more importantly, under the role you have chosen here you are supposed to be arguing, competently if possible, against grades. You claim they are in almost all respects counterfeit and harmful currency. Then what business have you, with your nimbleness of mind and thinness of skull to be arguing against that detestable currency's inflation? Inflation is the death of bad money.

  • The answer, of course, is that you claim that people won't learn unless they have to in order to compete, and that once the currency is inflated, people will be lazy because the poor will have too much money. This assumes the absence of love for learning, which is the emerging theme of what's missing from the analysis, so far as I'm concerned.

Law School as an Example of Educational decline

Admittance Procedure

  • Failure to find the obvious and proper "Admission" here shows failure of one entire layer of editing, which is not merely proofreading (though proofreading is always essential), but also the layer that guarantees grammatical accuracy, without which you will sometimes stand unnecessarily suspected of illiteracy.

The problems with law school and its underlying principles are demonstrated first in the admission process. Law school focuses on unsupported numbers to grant admission. In doing so, they may pass over applicants with a true passion to succeed. Often, the applicants whose desire to enter law is based solely on making money or securing a respectable, stable job are the ones being accepted. In the end, I believe those with genuine passion for a calling will be the most successful. Many of those with this drive however will lack the numbers to gain admittance to schools where their opportunities will be maximized.

  • This was just jargon, sentence after sentence. It ignored the "underlying principle" that applicants and their families, who regard US News & World Report rankings as significant, thereby determine every institution on slavish dedication to the USN&WR ranking algorithm. Which drives you up in the standings if your incoming class has high LSAT and GPA scores (in our range of the market, it is necessary to have the median of your entering JD class in the 99th percentile on LSAT, which means that nothing else counts for half the class), but does nothing whatever to help you if you take students who have an uncommon passion for the achievement of justice. That's the whole story right there, and you haven't laid a glove on it, for all the thwacking around.

Law School System and Conclusion

Upon admittance, law students enter a system that repeatedly demonstrates institutional emphasis on appearances and reputation. Grading systems are manipulated to present schools in the best light. Students are funneled into summer jobs based mostly on grades that often do not reflect the aptitude of a student for actual legal work. Rather, these grades reflect his test-taking skills and the knowledge he was able to retain over a semester. This knowledge will often dissipate after finals yet firms seem to view grades as the ultimate measure of a student’s potential to succeed as a lawyer. Granted, exemplary grades do tend to demonstrate a certain level of intelligence, discipline, and hard work. However, they do not accurately encapsulate a student’s potential or the likelihood that he will succeed as a lawyer. This is just one demonstration of a focus on appearance by law school administrators. The whole system is designed to provide law firms with students who have the appearance of excellence rather than ensuring actual quality.

  • But firms interview the people who work there. If what firms wanted was great young lawyers--which we may take as an hypothesis because they insist on it, although I am a little dubious--they could readily have them by combining an insistence on good grades (what difference does it make to them that grades are an arbitrary measure of capacity: they will take good grades for what they are, namely a sign of ability to adapt oneself to an institution whose task is to get legal work out of you) with an interview check for the love of learning. Then they would be able to exclude the mere unmerited time-servers you say you are so worried about. They would be getting people who earned good grades (which shows positive adaptivity as previously mentioned) and who also "merited" those grades because they would have worked just as hard to learn just as much if the grades hadn't existed in the first place.

  • Actually, however, law firms don't really want those people, or rather they can't make a practice of preferring those people. Law firms prefer people who are more insecure, and less internally self-motivated, because that personality type is more easily manipulated into becoming the leveraged work force whose time is sold at an increasing multiple of its fixed cost. Insecurity, and a combination of braggadocio and envy better suits the firm's medium-term needs. Whether it ultimately decides to make such people partner, or instead ruthlessly weeds them out, they will be a large proportion of the leveraged workforce.

Overall, the grading systems established in law schools and other academic institutions are indicative of an education system with reversed priorities. Indeed, this education system may be indicative of a society suffering from similar problems. A change must be made to bring focus back to substantive learning in order to enable our students to achieve their true potential.

  • What so deeply troubles me about this essay is the absence of contact with the other half of the social contract whose decay you're lamenting. There's plenty to say about schools in general, which has to do entirely with failures to achieve equality in America. But you're not talking about that; you're talking--excuse me--about yourself, and the rest of the people around here. And as to you, the high achievers of this society, the bargain has always been, and always should be, that in view of your talents for learning you will be enabled to learn as much as your love of learning prompts you to acquire. Much can be said, then, about the debt and other equality-failures even within the ruling class of this so-unequal society. But the love of learning as a legitimate precondition to the social benefit involved in graduate and professional education--much less the kind of extensive, individual assistance in career formation which is supposed to be given you around here--seems to be entirely irrelevant to your analysis of how students behave. How can someone who is aware of that motivation so entirely disregard it? How could you possibly be unaware of it? I'm beset by disappointment either way.


Webs Webs

r7 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:59:13 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM