Law in Contemporary Society
-- JonathanBoustani - 24 May 2008


Substance and Appearance in the Education System

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

The current 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 sole benchmark of achievement. In the process, students come to see school more as a place to compete for top grades than as a place to learn. The manner in which grades are employed has moved the focus of school away from substantive learning and towards the appearance of learning as marked by good grades. School, for many (both at the top of learning curve and the bottom), has become a tedious and stressful parade of hollow achievement where students cut corners and use cliff notes to get better grades since those grades, not the learning they are supposed to represent, are what society tells them are important. While the system of grades in place today may not be wholly to blame for what appears to be a decrease in the breadth and depth of students’ learning at various levels(as opposed to that of the average student 50 years ago),it certainly illustrates a system where the appearance of excellence/learning is more important than genuine excellence.

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 often 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. Of course, very intelligent students with a love of learning will often make use of this opportunity to learn and remain unaffected by the system of grading in place today. They have the opportunity to thrive in most environments. Overall, however, the system tends to kill a person’s love of learning or prevent such a love from developing by demonstrating that it is unimportant or less important than getting good grades by whatever means necessary. 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. I don’t believe that grades should be abolished entirely. I merely believe that they should cease to be the sole determiner of academic merit. If balanced equally with other tools, grades could become an effective measurement of merit without shifting focus from substance to appearance.

The emphasis on form in law school is 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. In the end, I believe those with genuine passion for a calling will be the most successful. Upon admission, 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 often dissipates 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(firms, however, are often only interested in work-horses willing to work for less than the market value of their labor). This is just one demonstration of a focus on appearance by law school administrators.

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. In the long run, the focus on appearance demonstrated in the educational system could lead to a substantial drop in quality of work output in a number of economic and academic fields.


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r2 - 22 Jan 2009 - 01:23:38 - IanSullivan
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