Law in Contemporary Society
I was struck by the part of Professor Moglen's lecture yesterday on our education system, and I wish to address some particularly troublesome thoughts that I've had regarding our higher education system (university level and beyond).

Prof. Moglen said that in general, professors don't care about their students very much. Instead of learning about their students, they would rather sit around in a faculty lunch and discuss how intelligent they are. While as an undergraduate, I had sinking suspicions of this sentiment, it was only until I worked as a graduate student TA that I realized the pervasiveness of this truth. I pursued a PhD? in engineering in part because of my love for teaching, and I was shocked to realize how few professors truly care about it. As a TA, I have worked for professors who rehash each year's lecture on dull powerpoint presentations despite repeated critical evaluations of their ineffectiveness, delegating almost all aspects of evaluation (including all test writing, grading, and office hours) to me and almost all aspects of actual learning to the student himself. In fact, while conversing with fellow graduate students, I have heard of certain professors openly declaring that they cared nothing about their undergraduates, that they were a pain in the ass, and that they would rather do research. And this was at a university which was consistently ranked in the top 5 in the nation and liked to boast of the success of their graduates in that particular field.

A quick reflection of why this is the state of our higher education reveals that this is the obvious result of a higher education con. This con is not limited to law school, but rather all forms of higher education. This is a con that has been played by the universities and the industries in concert, which is why it is so effective and nearly impossible to defeat. It is the con that prestige makes a better individual, that prestige is a useful indicator of achievement, that prestige is what makes "success."

Allow me to briefly explain. No doubt prestige is an important factor in the impressionable minds of many students in choosing their universities and graduate schools. I ask, why is this intangible thing, "prestige," so important to many of us? The answer to me, is obvious: simply because it has been effectively marketed to us as such. We are constantly inundated by reports of how students from xxx school consistently work at the top of their fields, at the best companies, and are the highest proportion of Fortune 500 CEOs. The universities themselves work hard to emphasize these factors to influence us into attending. Industry reinforces this notion by consistently rewarding these choices by selecting students from xxx university, accelerating the positive feedback loop. And institutions like US News add fuel to the fire, by giving intangible prestige a tangibly quantitative number.

If we accept that prestige is a major driving force of our higher education system, then it is obvious as to why the state of our teaching is the way it is. Universities desire prestige to attract the best students, who desire prestige to land them the best jobs. Unfortunately, prestige is independent of REAL factors; for example, what the individual has learned or will learn from the university, or what he or she has learned to do with that knowledge after he or she graduates. Simply put, good teaching is not rewarded because it has nothing to do with prestige. Have you ever heard of a student boasting of the fact that he took a class with a professor who won a teaching award? It is far more likely to hear someone say, I had a Nobel Laureate teach me such and such, I had a Supreme Court clerk teach me etc., I had a guy who was cited 1,000 times last year and published 100 articles in abc journal teach me xyz. And more troubling is the fact that universities buy into this even more heavily than students do. At the university which I previously worked, a popular professor in our department was let go because he failed to pull in xxx amount of grant money, even though he was touted as one of the most excellent teachers.

Unfortunately, unless and until this con is broken, teaching will largely remain the same: purely optional. Universities hire the people that bring in the money, that publish in the most prestigious journals, that win the most awards, and that can lure the most students into attending. If they can teach, great. If not, keep them teaching until the students revolt, then relegate them to some smaller classes where the students are more passive and less likely to complain. I don't see this ever changing, and that makes me depressed.

-- AlexHu - 06 Mar 2009

Alex, in the spirit of beginning to critique and edit the quality of each other's writing, there were a few aspects of this post that, in my opinion, made it less persuasive than it could have been:

  • You use a lot of definite terms, including variations of "simply" and "obviously." This makes your argument seem overly simplistic and unconsidered.
  • "A quick reflection" - this turned me off. "A quick reflection" suggests that your thoughts on this subject are not well thought-out.
  • "Allow me to briefly explain":
    • Just do it, don't ask permission.
    • It wasn't especially brief. That's not bad, just don't use the word "briefly" to describe it.
  • I liked the story you shared about being a TA. It would be more effective if you shortened the sentences.

-- MolissaFarber - 11 Mar 2009

Hi, Alex. I think you identify a problem that concerns many students. It doesn't seem that you clearly locate how it is that universities obtain their prestige medals. And maybe this is because you would agree with me that the current, irrational system of allocating reputation does not lend itself to much meaningful explanation. You mention "top of their fields," "best companies," and "Fortune 500 CEO's." In straining to track the common thread connecting these "standards" of prestige, it might be possible to ultimately conclude that prestige is based on what students end up doing after acquiring their degrees. But instead, the "REAL factors" that you reveal toward the end of your post are the criteria that should be the things that inform a university's real quality (and we shouldn't label it prestige).

I wonder, though, if any system that claims to be able to meaningfully grade universities is really meaningful at all, if not altogether self-deluded in its mission. Much like the possibly misinformed ritual of grading students, creating an "objective" bulletin that purportedly broadcasts in a very uniform and unifying way the big picture of "which schools are quality, and which are not" would be misguided. But just as a thought experiment, how might we do this? If we borrow from the current, flawed system, we could possibly identify more meaningful endpoints in students' careers (rather than using, for example, the number of CEO alumni as a determining factor). But maybe even this misses the point. In other words, using endpoints wouldn't get us to the REAL factors. And maybe REAL factors don't lend themselves to a workable formula that outputs hierarchy. This is because people's processes, not endpoints, of learning and application don't seem to be assessable on relative terms.

If this conclusion is reasonable, then an alternative is necessary. Reflecting on the quality of one's education is an individualized process that cannot be generalized into a "US News and World Report." This process requires self-evaluation on many criteria and should ideally also include input from the outside. That is, other students and professors should comment, qualitatively, on a particular student's changes and her own perceptions of these changes.

This must be one of the goals of the wiki.

-- JosephLu - 08 Mar 2009

What is wrong with judging a university by the number of CEO's it produces? If I want to be a big-shot corporate lawyer, I would do well to attend Columbia. But if I want to be a law professor, maybe I'm better off at UChicago, despite its lower US News ranking. Alternatively, if getting an excellent educational experience is a priority, there are ways to find it.

If anything is broken, it is US News' ranking system in that it does not adequately reflect the faculty's teaching ability. But fortunately, prospective students aren't forced into going where US News tells them to go, even though their rankings have been heavily marketed. We law students just choose to follow their advice because we - not the law schools - value prestige over teaching quality. So I don't see any need for depression, Alex, because with at least fourteen "elite" law schools and plenty of information available on career opportunities, educational quality, quality of life, etc., it seems like it shouldn't be too hard for somebody to find the school that fits them best. That school may not always be the most prestigious, but if we choose prestige for its own sake, we have only ourselves to blame--not the law schools.

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 09 Mar 2009

Michael - I agree that, if you want to have the best chance at a successful career in corporate law, the prestige of Columbia in placing its graduates in that field will be relevant.

However, you fail to address the central point of Alex's post - that the culture at universities which emphasizes prestige ends up devaluing actual teaching, resulting in disinterested professors whose job security is based on the success of their research, not their interaction with their students. I do believe that Alex has a legitimate reason for "depression" . This is, as he stated, a uniform practice across higher education, and regardless of which elite law school one chooses, you are going to get a similar experience.

There are two separate issues here. One is that higher education is driven by prestige, and that the reputation of a degree can have a substantial bearing on a student's career prospects. The other is that "universities hire the people who bring in money", many of whom aren't particularly interested in the teaching aspect of their job. I don't think we have to complacently accept this state of affairs simply because we can read reviews about different schools.

Would a university system, in which teachers don't write and researchers/writers don't teach, be viable?

I am particularly interested in this conversation because it wasn’t until I came to Law School that I gave serious thought to criticisms of the higher education learning system. For Undergrad, I attended Holy Cross, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts; the majority of our class sizes were rarely over 20 people and there was a great emphasis on teacher student dialogue. Had it not been for some of my professors at Holy Cross, I most likely would not be at Columbia Law School. I came to Columbia with the belief that though it was graduate school I would still have the ability to converse with and ask questions to my professors. Thus far this has been the case.

Beginning with Professor Sovern in Legal Methods, I saw that even at this level there remained an open and present opportunity to email or visit my professors to ask questions and clear up any apprehension. Though I have not engaged in this practice often, I have never doubted its existence.

As to the prestige concern, I agree that prestige has become a driving force in leading students to choose one institution over another. But I kindly disagree with Alex’s assertion that prestige is independent of any REAL factors. Prestige is not necessarily grounded on what the student learns or is taught at the University. Rather, prestige is about the type of graduates the university has produced and their influence on society. I school is not only judged by their professors but also their Alumni. I also do not see a direct correlation to the prestige of a university and the professors at that university opting not to teach. While there may be institutions of prestige in which professors use their tenure to act in bad faith, I do not see this as evidence against incorporating prestige in assessing a university.

-- WilliamKing - 09 Mar 2009

There are valid points here, but I think this discussion has strayed a little off-course. Addressing the problem is the first step. Determining how to step outside the system (rather than suggesting it invokes depression and seems it will not change) comes next. My impression is that the whole point of this class was to step beyond characterization and find a way out. Alex, why does it make you depressed? Why do you think it will never change? Perhaps too much of the conversation has centered on "choice." If one disagrees with Alex's characterization of the system as a con, feel free to say so, but upon accepting his initial characterization, the language of real "choice" must disappear. Merely stepping into a role does not equate to making a conscious, individualized decision. Rather than asking why we are coerced into looking at prestige in deciding what school to attend, why our schools remain prestigious or further discussing why teachers don't teach, maybe we should be asking ourselves, as students, how to escape complacency, break out of our roles and help our professors break out of their own. Revolt? Maybe. In the meantime, perhaps good can come out of student-led initiatives that recognize excellent teaching at the graduate level. To start, how about a system that allows students to recommend visiting professors from lower ranked schools or pushes for greater emphasis on student evaluations? How about a system that eliminates tenure altogether?

--Main. UchechiAmadi? - 10 Mar 2009

I think that we are all being too cynical about the motivation behind teaching at the collegiate level. I have found, overwhelmingly, that my professors at Columbia Law (including, of course, but not limited to Professor Moglen) are interested in taking to me about my professional and academic goals, and helping me however they can. I also found this helpful atmosphere among professors at my undergraduate institution, and I went to a school with an enormous population of undergraduates. I had professors that not only counseled me on my post-baccalaureate decisions, but that cared deeply about my personal life and my goals. As Will was saying, without mentoring from these professors, I wouldn't be here today. I have always found professors to be incredibly open and willing to talk with students, perhaps they tend to give their own work more importance than it deserves, but isn't that something we all do?

I do agree however, that something should be done about the "prestige" issue, because Alex and everyone else are right that it is too pervasive in our decision making process and it really only detracts from our ability to make good choices about the future. I think we need to start by asking: what does "prestige" really measure? What does "prestige" mean? So that we can extract any base level of value and disregard the superfluous remains.

I'm not sure eliminating tenure is the way to go to fix this, because I think tenure has a value in intellectual freedom that far exceeds its cost in terms of keeping "bad teachers" around. I also don't think that getting professors from lower ranked schools is the way to go because I disagree that there is a correlation between prestigious schools and bad teachers, and less prestigious schools and good teachers. I think it depends on the individual professors, which is why I think more emphasis on student evaluations would be a good idea, particularly in making hiring decisions. Additionally, since we all look to US News to tell us which schools are prestigious/good, and we would like "good" to include some measure of how much professors care about us, why not get US News to include "student satisfaction" in their measure of prestige?

--Main. MolissaFarber? - 11 Mar 2009

Thanks, everyone, for the critique of my writing. After reading your comments, I see how certain points in my writing necessarily should have been strengthened. And of course, certain stylistic issues as pointed out by Molissa should be addressed. However, I am a bit loath to edit my original writing, because I feel like it would distract from the discussion and make it confusing for subsequent readers.

I think the focus, as Joe, Will, and Molissa have pointed out, is where does prestige come from, and is it really separate from "real" factors? Which would then logically flow to Uchechi's point: is there a "solution", if any is needed?

I have thought a long time about the origin of prestige. What makes an institution "prestigious?" There are many possible factors. One, for example, is acceptance rate. But it is clear that a smaller student body/acceptance rate does not make a school better; in fact, if an institution were to become "too" selective, I would argue that the student body is harmed as a whole. I have arrived at the simple conclusion that what makes an institution great is the quality of the graduates it produces. If xyz law school consistently manages to produce 10 Supreme Court clerks a year and a number of presidents, senators, partners, etc., then it will necessarily become more desirable-- and therefore, "more prestigious", if we define "prestige" as "something that desired by more people."

Now, to determine if "prestige" is separate of "real" factors, we must consider whether in the face of the quality of the teaching, the acceptance rate, the location, even the statistical measure of its student body, etc., the above statement still holds true. I would say that it does. I do not have empirical data to support my assertions, but I would find it hard to believe that a student, in weighing the quality of the graduates against the "other" factors, would weigh the "other" factors more heavily. Of course, here is a huge weakness in my argument, because surely someone can say that they chose an institution based more on "teaching" or for example, even more absurdly, "acceptance rate," than the "quality of the graduates." Moreover, there must be some sort of balancing test: for example, given two "equal" graduating classes, something else must tip the balance; these factors will be assigned a different weight by different individuals based on personal preference.

I simply assert that on the whole, the quality of the graduates is the single largest factor in what makes an institution "prestigious." And this factor is not necessarily connected to one of the major purposes of attending university, which is namely, teaching and learning. I am not saying that one will never find good teachers at prestigious universities. I am not even asserting that good teachers are harder to find at prestigious universities because they have been hired for their star power. I am just saying that it is hypocritical for these institutions to claim that education is their top priority when it is clearly an independent factor. Their cycle of prestige is more self-perpetuating than a result of the education they provide. If a certain university is blessed with a crop of self-motivated high achievers, this will inevitably attract a next group of such students, INDEPENDENT of the actual teaching of the university.

Whether or not there is a "solution" to this "problem" is even more opaque. Firstly, what is it that we are trying to solve? Prof. Moglen suggested that the faculty be focused on learning about the individual and how best to educate him or her. If we see this as the endpoint goal, then I don't know of any feasible solutions. There is no way to make someone truly care who doesn't want to. If we wish to make education as the main goal of universities instead of research, star power, etc., I also see this as untenable. Universities would not sacrifice scholarship in the face of education because it would destroy their cycle of prestige attraction. I see the best solution as "changing the minds and hearts of people," to go to the institution that will best educate them. But this solution is ALSO impossible, because there is no objectively fair way to determine how well an institution will educate oneself without having already been in it.

Molissa has similarly proposed a solution that she has identified as unlikely to work or be instituted. Even providing something in USNews would be wildly subjective and individualized; there is no way to generalize a "satisfaction score" to a university with infinite variables.

Because I see no solutions, I am depressed.

--Main. AlexHu? - 12 Mar 2009

I'm not sure how my name ended up on the comments immediately above your post, Alex - my contribution to this thread was limited to the text in purple. I'm not sure who wrote the post (in black letters) under which my name appears.

-- MolissaFarber - 12 Mar 2009

Michael, I have to disagree. I do not think the issue is “choice” or at least not an individualized decision, as Uchechi suggests. The reality is that we live in a credentialist society—a society that permits and prohibits access to desired social standing on the basis of one’s educational background. Hence, there is little room for individualized choice. We have been taught by society that in order to live a more “comfortable” life, to hold a more “respectable” position, and so on we must attend the best schools and rub elbows with the most “prestigious” individuals in order to gain access to these positions. And as a result, more and more of us find ourselves in situations similar to Alex, in which we choose things that tend not to live up to what they were hyped up to be in order to achieve our end goal. Whether this is right or wrong—I do not know. However, the reality is this is the society in which we live in and to acquire those things that we deem desirable we must play the game or at the very least collectively strive to change it.

-- UchennaIbekwe - 12 Mar 2009



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