Monday, September 15, 2008

Creating Disabilities

Within the last month the following have occurred to me or to others including some at other schools who have shared their concerns with me:
1. A student asked to have a 2 year old grade changed in order to improve his class rank.
2. A mother called to complain about her son's grade in a class.
3. A student was devastated by a comment on a paper because it was followed by an explanation point.
4. Two attorneys and one judge have asked "What is going on." They say they have never encountered students who required as much "hand holding."
5. Employers visiting to interview complain about student attitudes as signified by wearing shorts and ipods to an interview, being aggressive about what they will and won't do, lateness, etc.

These types of incidents extend far beyond law students. I read somewhere -- maybe the New Yorker -- that there are now companies that formally recognize the wave of graduates who just cannot handle the ups and downs of every day life. Criticism is always personal and anything other than "That's a great job," is crushing. It's like a strange combination of entitlement, helplessness, and vulnerability. I think it comes from an entire generation of parents like myself who read whatever book we read about child rearing that said if little Molly drowns the cat do not punish or chastise her but say instead, "My goodness, Molly, that cat must have made you really angry."

If ability means being prepared to contend with the ups and downs of life, being able to shake things off, being determined, to learn from criticism, and to take the initiative to solve difficult problems, it seems like we are well into an new age of disability. If I am not just imagining this (and, if I am, I am not alone) what does it mean for law teaching? Or, more specifically, are there ways that legal education helps exacerbate the disability. (I think exacerbate would be the right word because I believe many students arrive with the disability already deeply rooted.) One way it may do that is by not communicating clearly.

I am pretty sure we play a role in the disabling. In talking to some law professor friends, none could not remember more than a time or two when he or she said in response to an classroom answer "No, actually that is wrong." Instead, the answer is something that leaves the student feeling good but likely hearing an inaccurate message. It could be something like, "Yes I see what you mean and [always say "and" instead of "but"] maybe another way to look at it is this way . . . ." The choice between making students feel good and providing accurate information may not come up that often but it seems to come up at particularly crucial times. For example, at my School we have a compulsory 3.15 average grade curve. There were many reasons for adopting it. Some of those reasons made sense. One that did not make sense was that low grades hurt students' feelings. Here again is the feeling good as opposed to accurate information problem. Students with a B- average do not realize that they are as vulnerable to failing the Bar as students with a C average were before the curve.

This may lead some to think that the disability flows from not enough adversity. I do not see how this can be the case. Today's students are likely to "sense" adversity or a lack of respect as readily -- perhaps more readily -- than their fathers and mothers. They may just react differently. If the total level of a "sense" of adversity has not changed because expectations have racheted "up," but students are less able to cope and consistently receive inaccurate information, I am wondering what has improved.

Is disabling people really a way to be kind or show your respect?


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I agree with your sense that something has changed, but maybe there are different phenomena here. The one on which you focus is the tendency to make students (not to mention kids, and employees, and virtually everyone) feel good about themselves at the expense of criticism. There's lots of excoriating prose heaped on the self-esteem movement, and deservedly so.

But there are other things, perhaps related, going on. Incident #1 could be described as reflecting an excess of rights culture or a byproduct of the student-as-consumer phenomenon. Incident #5 sounds more like a byproduct of privilege.

9/15/2008 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has been my experience in practicing at a big firm. The last two or three classes of associates have been filled with kids who, even by the warped standards of BigLaw, act entitled, snobby, and are incapable of taking some good hard criticism.

Oddly enough (actually, not oddly from a Moneylaw perspective), students from the "lower" tier schools almost uniformly work harder and smarter than from top-5 type schools. And complain way less.

9/16/2008 1:58 PM  

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