Sunday, November 23, 2008

Real genius

Real geniusOnce again Jeff Harrison has lamented, in ways I appreciate, that the legal academy seems to hire a significant number of professors who are neither intellectually interesting enough (as a static matter) nor intellectually curious enough (as a dynamic matter) to make better teachers and smarter colleagues of themselves. I don't endorse Jeff's attempt to link the phenomenon to the academy's addiction to elite educational credentials. I must also stress that character trumps talent in faculty hiring, as in all other questions of law school management. I nevertheless do think that Jeff raises a legitimate issue. However gaudy or modest their degrees may be, a significant number of law teaching candidates are simply boring. Given how competitive the market is, and given how much is at stake in faculty hiring, law schools have every right — and arguably have a responsibility — to favor, ceteris paribus, creative over boring candidates.

Read the rest of this post . . . .Howard GardnerIn previous posts, Breaking the elitist stranglehold and Legal academia's rookie combine, I have touted, with variable degrees of directness, the work of Howard Gardner. In works such as Frames of Mind (1983) and Intelligence Reframed (1999), Gardner identified no fewer than eight manifestations of multiple intelligences:
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Musical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Spatial
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist
Every aspect of legal education, from faculty hiring to classroom instruction, privileges a single, narrow set of analytical skills over all other forms of intelligence. In Gardner's terms, we seek the peculiar mix of some linguistic talent with enough logical prowess that translates into mastery of the Langdellian curriculum, delivered via some version of the Socratic method. By and large we get the people we seek, because traditional legal education has excelled in filtering people according to these criteria, and no one who stumbled over this hurdle during law school should expect a law faculty appointment.

Pleistocene human skullI question whether this combination of linguistic and logical intelligence is enough. It is far more prevalent than we legal academics might care to admit, because these are some of the most widely distributed and easily evaluated forms of intelligence. Absent tragic circumstances, every human exposed to speech masters it. Moreover, aside from mastery of phonology, morphology, and syntax, the ability to recognize aural and visual patterns is probably the species property of Homo sapiens, like heat detection in pit vipers or echolocation in bats. Top-ranked law students are freaks of nature in this respect, and their instructors are even more so.

But all too often, freakish analytical talent falls short. When it is paired with abominably stunted development in intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, we get the ingredients for a faculty member so monstrous, so odious that the academy and the profession would benefit from her or his absence. That is the extreme case. The far more common (and much more difficult) situation involves a would-be professor who has mastered everything asked of her or him during law school but exhibits none of the spark and the commitment that would ever justify a lifetime academic appointment.

BasquiatSuccess in the legal profession hinges on many forms of intelligence. Graduates at the bottom of their classes often excel in real-world settings that put a premium on attributes that law schools ignore or even denigrate. Every law school should prepare its students to master as many of the forms of intelligence that translate into professional success. For this reason alone, to say nothing of advancing faculty excellence or the collective knowledge base available to legal academia and the legal profession, I believe that it is entirely reasonable to press faculty candidates in ways that reveal their intellectual curiosity, creative propensities, and social intelligence — the very attributes overlooked by the academy's devotion to analytical acumen.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: Could you elaborate? If candidates are narrowly prepared and are not pressed for the types of characteristics you and I value, isn't it because hiring committees rely on credentials that are unrelated to those characteristics? Is so, what is it that you do not endorse?

11/23/2008 8:49 AM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...


Law schools fail to distinguish creative from dull candidates simply because they're not even evaluating elements of intelligence beyond those valued in law schools. Perhaps the failure rate is exacerbated whenever the evaluators (namely, we incumbent law professors) stress factors, such as the perceived quality of the law school attended, that have no bearing on these other elements of intelligence. But I chose to make the point independent of undue emphasis on credentials, because it strikes me that dullness thrives throughout the candidate pool.

The problem is deeply embedded within the culture of legal education. We value and inculcate exactly one type of intelligence. We hire on that basis. And then we complain, usually sotto voce, how dull the entire enterprise seems. Start looking for some sort of creative spark, which after all is something legal education seems determined to extinguish, and perhaps we might reap different (and better) results.


11/23/2008 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am currently reading (ok I'm listening to it on ipod) a fascinating book on the concept of genius or those who excel more generally. It's called "Outliers" and it's by Malcolm Gladwell. He challenges the assertion that people (like Bill Gates or the Beatles) rise to positions of greatness due to their genius or natural talents. He argues that it's all about context and opportunity. He is especially interested in the concepts of "opportunity to practice" and timing.

Two quick examples. The majority of professional soccer players and hockey players have something in common - they weren't born late in the year. This meant that they were physically bigger and more developed than other kids they competed against, due to the cut off dates for little league sports. This advantage snowballs into opportunities that they wouldn't have had otherwise. Another: Bill Gates had a unique set of circumstances (not the least of which was his families wealth) that enabled him to have much more computer time on a "real time" system than almost anyone else in the nation - and at the appropriate age to make things happen in the computer world.

There are further examples using the Beatles and a prominent NYC attorney. I can't do the book justice here, but it's a great read.

11/26/2008 10:59 AM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

This is in part a question, and in part a gentle criticism. I understand the notion of multiple intelligences, and I take as a given that something more than linguistic and logical abilities are (a) nice to have around among your faculty peers, and (b) useful to have in legal practice. Are you equally convinced, though, that they can be selected on (either in hiring or admissions) -- either generally or without sacrificing selecting on the traditional attributes -- or, if they don't come prefabricated, that they can be taught (either to junior faculty or to students)? If they can't taught to students, why not try to focus on the things that can be improved, even at the margins, by the kind of people the teaching profession attracts? I mean, I could make a pretty good case that the most important thing to teach is how to be happy, but I can't say I would regard a third year devoted to happiness as the best idea.

I have a slightly contrary hypothesis to what you are saying; I think law schools are only so-so in effectuating their supposed objectives of hiring on narrower criteria, and that one of the things they do when betraying that is to select based on other criteria that often overlap with other forms of intelligence (esp. interpersonal, but often even musical or body intelligence, as it feeds selection into college, prior employment, and the like).

Finally, I doubt that this has too much to do with character, and if anything encouraging more variables may diminish focus on that.

11/26/2008 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One explanation for the phenomenon may be the tendency of law faculties (of whatever rank) to become self-satisfied. They simply do not want to hire new faculty members who would push them to be better.

11/26/2008 7:22 PM  

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