Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

One Dimensional Thought and the Harvard Law Scandal

with 3 comments

by Wiz

I was fascinated by this piece in TAPPED about the mini-scandal at Harvard Law. You all probably know the story by now, one law student writes a disgusting and entitled email about how genetically superior she is to black kids, and it gets forwarded to, well, the whole world. (I’m slightly sympathetic to the claim that we shouldn’t be so eager to publicize someone’s private correspondence, no matter how fucked up it is, but that’s another story.)

What’s relevant isn’t that one entitled Harvard girl has fucked up views about race. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say she isn’t the only one. But rather, as the author Silvana Naguib points out, this is really endemic of broader intellectual problems at law schools and other elite institutions. Not necessarily the racism, though I’m sure that’s a problem, but rather the sense of raw intellectual superiority and lack of empathy. She quotes Jill Filipovic criticizing the “academic emphasis on logical consistency over actual justice, and an environment where discussions are so hyper-intellectualized that students feel they can say anything so long as they can give it a veneer of logic and rationality.”

As Naguib points out, there is a stunning lack of empathy taught at major universities. Formalized instrumental rationality is elevated above any sort of imagination, empathy, or morality. The obsession with ranking intelligence and ranking schools—something I’ve found law students to be particular dicks about—is one manifestation of this, as if intelligence were a simple quantifiable standard that can be easily added up and measured, and your self-worth is tied to where on the scale you have measured.

It all goes to show that people are not, as they should be, reading Martha Nussbaum’s classic work Poetic Justice in law school. Nussbaum’s goal, in a narrow sense, is to encourage judges to read more fiction, but her broader point is that you can’t really understand the world without some ability to emphasize with others, to imagine what life is like for others. Literature and poetry, she argues, are essential starting places for learning these virtues.

One of the works of fiction that Nussbaum draws on, besides Native Son and Leaves of Grass, is Hard Times by Dickens. I quoted this in a comments section, but think its a great passage. At one point Gradgrind, famous for wanting “the facts and nothing but the facts,” has finally converted to a more humanistic worldview, but ends up at the mercy of his former student, the monstrous Bitzer:

“’Bitzer,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’

‘The circulation, sir,’ returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’”

The point, of course, is that despite his own self-perception as a hard-nosed realist, it is Bitzer, who does not actually understand the world, unable to make sense of a definition of the heart that is not physical. In a similar way, Nussbaum argues, too many law students, and especially those influenced by economists (she takes a couple of good potshots at Richard Posner ), have adopted an over-intellectualized formal style of thought, that views imagination and empathy to be contrary to good legal judgment. And yet, of course, it is simply impossible to understand justice without the ability to understand other individuals in their fullness, and not simply as bearers of abstract legal standing, or worse, empty receptacles for utility.

Judges, and the lesson holds for all intellectuals, are not computers adding up widgets, but instead, first and foremost humans, who must, at a bare minimum attempt to come to terms with the richness and variety of the people we are studying or judging. There is a direct line between certain styles of formalized pseudo-scientific thought- which critics have aptly called “autistic”—and the inability to sympathize with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

I’ll leave you with the words of Theodore Parker, abolitionist and Transcendentalist. He was writing 150 years ago about why the judiciary did not declare slavery to be unconstitutional, as they had in England.

It is too much to hope, that we shall yet have American judges, with hearts and understandings strong enough to draw up out of that same deep well the twin secret, that there is not, and never was, any legal slavery in America? It is not strength of understanding that has failed us. Have we not had on the bench of the United States Supreme Court a Jay, a Wilson, a Marshall, a Story? What has been lacking is heart, conscience, courage.”


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 30, 2010 at 15:52

3 Responses

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  1. I agree with what you say about law students. And though it doesn’t excuse the students from buying into the intellectual elitism/ranking, a big reason the mindset exists is the way the profession looks at students when deciding who to hire and interview. The top X% of a class get interviews at the top X% of firms which pay X amount of money. Top X+1% of the class get interviews at the top X+1% of firms, which pay X less 20%. And so on. Everyone’s intellectual worth is thus neatly laid out, and I don’t know of another profession where you could so easily figure out how much a graduate will make just by plugging numbers into a formula. What you’re saying about empathy in reasoning goes well beyond the point I just made, but it’s part of what’s going on.


    April 30, 2010 at 19:53

  2. Well sure, any time you have zero-sum intelligence competitions with high stakes, people are going to be dicks about intelligence. I find it sad to see the top 1% in any competition fighting to be the top .1% rather than engaging in activities that are not zero-sum (except sports, when the competition is actually entertaining and not pathetic). I agree with all you’ve written about lack of empathy and the absurdity of quantifying intelligence. I feel helpless to do anything about it.


    May 1, 2010 at 00:59

  3. I wonder if this one of those few instances (I hate to admit it) where Yale trumps Harvard. Yale Law School doesn’t have grades, and people often think of it as an “intellectual fantasy camp.” The lack of grades might encourage people to pursue the intellectual side of law and not care about who is the smartest person in the universe.


    May 1, 2010 at 10:20

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