Sunday, December 03, 2006

The problem of intellectual drabness, from soup to nuts

Who, me? Gallop across the intellectual landscape? Neigh!
Herewith an observation excavated from recent MoneyLaw commentary:
A shocking percentage [of "people with pure elite credentials (Harvard, Harvard; Princeton, Harvard; Stanford, Harvard, etc.)"] seem to know very little except their narrow academic interest.
Interesting. This Jeff Harrison snippet does two things. First, it takes a swipe at "pure elite credentials." That's a standard MoneyLaw move. There's nothing inherently wrong with, say, a Princeton/Yale combination. What MoneyLaw decries is reliance on this pair of credentials for evaluating anyone once publications (or their absence) enter the picture.

The Harrison snippet's second move is much more interesting. It expresses an underlying assumption that "knowing very little except [one's] narrow academic interest" should be regarded as a negative trait.

LeonardoThis is related to but distinct from the age-old question of specialists versus generalists. I've expressed sympathy for generalists (undoubtedly influenced by my perception of myself as a generalist), but I understand why some individuals, some law schools, and perhaps even the academy as a whole might prefer a steady diet of specialists. Though I disagree, I do understand. What Jeff suggests, however, strikes me as less contestable, perhaps even incontrovertible. Specialist or generalist, an academic professional should have intellectual interests that span more areas than one.

To the extent that we encounter narrowly focused, intellectually drab double-elites, it is an indictment of these individuals' alma maters. Elite universities and law schools purport to value intellectual breadth in admissions. Perhaps their admissions offices merely give lip service to valuing intellectual breadth as part of a thorough, holistic evaluation of individual applications, only to fall back on strict formulas heavily weighted toward grade point averages and standardized test scores. I wouldn't know; I've never worked at a truly elite university, and I'll never know why, for instance, I was admitted to Harvard Law School but not Cornell. I do remember seeing -- and believing -- statements on various college and law school admission forms. Presumably elite universities still say that they seek students with broad interests.

But the admissions practices of elite universities are beside the point. The MoneyLaw ethos gives elite credentials such weight as they warrant, and not one ounce more. Individual intellects are the real prizes at stake, and it is hard to imagine why a law school would favor someone with a dull, narrow intellect (albeit one focused like a laser on a single subject of legal interest) over someone capable of traversing the complete range of human experience and imagination.

Dinner settingAlthough the process for evaluating law teaching candidates is filled with overvalued, worthless, and misleading techniques -- from the wretched FAR form to the "job talk," it is a vast heuristic wasteland -- an emphasis on general knowledge and intellectual breadth puts surprising weight on an undervalued tool within the existing evaluative arsenal. Next time you bring a candidate to campus, make sure you join her or him for dinner.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The snippet makes an additional, move, however: it suggests that people with "pure elite" credentials are MORE likely to "know very little outside their narrow interest." If this is Harrison's claim, what real evidence does he have that an "emphasis on general knowledge and intellectual breadth" will favor non-elite v. elite candidates? As someone with a VERY non-elite background who also happens to teach at well-regarded law-school I just don't see what leads to the presumption that my background would give me lots of intellectual breadth. Sure, my dismal public education in some of the worst elementry schools in the country taught me lots about how to clean a gun, etc., but if I could, I would trade that in in a heartbeat for the kind of grade-school education the wealthy kids received. And if my "human experience" is the kind that Harrison seems to value, why would three years a Yale (which I did not attend) or even seven years at Ivy league schools presumptively somehow contaminate it? Or is the claim more that 4 years at public university somehow preserved me as generalist, but had I gone Ivy league for undergrad I would have been transformed into a specialist? Well, maybe, I guess. Several of the posts on this block seem to trade one kind of proxy for another or make assumptions without much to back them up --- I thought Moneyball was about trying to do something else.

12/07/2006 5:57 PM  

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