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Review of Amy Chua’s Political Tribes

In Academia, America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on November 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in Academic Questions. 

Amy Chua, known both affectionately and derogatively as “Tiger Mom” after her highly acclaimed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), is a law professor at Yale Law School and an expert on globalization and international business transactions. She has the impeccable credentials of the typical law professor: Harvard University, Harvard Law School, clerkship with a federal appellate judge, and private practice experience at a Wall Street law firm. Her first book, World On Fire, coined the term “market-dominant minorities” to refer to “ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the ‘indigenous’ majorities around them.”[1] Certain minority populations, this theory runs, exert disproportionate control over their regional economy, fomenting in the process group backlash, resentment, and tribalism among those impoverished majorities who feel disenfranchised or marginalized.

The theme of market-dominant minorities underlies Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which examines domestic identity politics and the effects of foreign identity politics on U.S. foreign policy. Chua’s focus on tribalism, that instinctual tendency of humans to associate around shared norms, values, histories, customs, and traditions, holds together what feels like two different arguments: the one about culture at home and the other about foreign policy.

The less original of the two involves foreign policy. Five of Chua’s eight chapters can be reasonably reduced to a simple conclusion: American military intervention and capitalism did not succeed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and elsewhere because they were predicated on ideals that did not square with local, on-the-ground realities. In short, American values could not be universalized; presuming their viability in complex ethnic or tribal conflicts abroad led to disastrous consequences. Although she doesn’t cite him, her theme seems Hayekian: faraway experts cannot rationally design workable systems for the particular circumstances that are intelligible only to those with native knowledge.

Chua’s account of domestic tribalism and identity politics, on the other hand, is premised on the claim that America, historically, has been a “super-group.” A super-group is characterized by membership that “is open to individuals from all different backgrounds—ethnic, religious, racial, cultural.” Moreover, “a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.” Rather, “it allows those subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity” (12).

Tribalism, Chua submits, is spreading throughout the United States, dividing people by racial and class identities. When people identify with and as groups, she argues, they see themselves as victims and respond to perceived threats by retreating into insularity, defensiveness, and punitiveness. Elites, as a tribe, disdain “the provincial, the plebian, [and] the patriotic.” By contrast, “many ordinary Americans have come to view the elite as a distant minority controlling the levers of power from afar, ignorant about and uninterested in ‘real’ Americans” (6-7).

Chua alleges that the United States has split into the “haves” and “have-nots,” recognizable categories that are nevertheless crude. Although she describes several examples of groups that fall within these categories, her central concern is the difference between the progressive, elite, activist haves and the populist, patriotic have nots. The former purport to speak for marginalized, underclass groups without actually including those groups as members. The latter embraces the prosperity gospel and watches NASCAR and WWE. The haves and have nots, in this cartoonish illustration, represent “America’s two white tribes,” which have, she believes, turned against each other.

Chua seems correct about the alienation of white America in light of rapidly changing demographics and cultural norms. “For tens of millions of white Americans today,” she says, “mainstream popular culture displays an un-Christian, minority-glorifying, LGBTQ America they can’t and don’t want to recognize as their country—an America that seems to exclude them, to treat them as the enemy” (173). Yet Chua is off-base in assuming that the United States is or ever was a super-group, let alone “the only [super-group] among the major powers of the world.” She states: “We have forged a national identity that transcends tribal politics—an identity that does not belong to any subgroup, that is strong and capacious enough to hold together an incredibly diverse population, making us all American” (166). Her fear is that tribalism will cause America to lose “who we are.”

But who are “we”? Citizens of the United States? People who live within the territorial boundaries of the United States? People whose ancestors came from—where? She never clarifies. Are “we” unifying or coming apart the more diverse we become in terms of culture, religion, race, national origin, and so forth? Is it really an identity that holds us together? What about our Constitution, which, in the words of Albert Jay Nock, “recognizes no political boundaries, no distinctions of race or nation” in that “our allegiance to it takes precedence over every local or personal interest.”[2]

The fact is that America—both the idea and the geographical territory—has never truly been open to the kind of all-inclusive, harmonious diversity that Chua celebrates. The growing cultural chasm between New England and the South during the eighteenth century does not seem to have transcended tribal politics. The economy of the yeoman farmer and eventually the plantation system with its chattel slavery in the nineteenth-century agricultural south stood in stark contrast to the busy industry of New England. During the Civil War, southerners in the Confederate States of America would not have identified as American while retaining a “sub-group” identity.

There are many Americas. The history of the United States consists of numerous conflicts over which and whose version of America should prevail. It’s true, of course, that the United States has enjoyed, to some extent, an “ethnicity-transcending national identity and . . . unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins,” at least if the total number of immigrants and the fact that many of them do feel part of a larger America are any indication. But the existence of the National Origins Formula, in effect from 1921 to 1965, and the immigrant exclusion laws (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) suggest that the United States has, at times, been at least equally committed to keeping certain immigrants out of the country.

Treatment of immigrants in the United States has differed in kind and degree from region to region, city to city, and decade to decade. Thus, to purport that America has maintained some uniform and constant attitude towards immigrants, immigration, cultural multiplicity, ethnic minorities, and religious variety is mistaken. The United States may have been comparatively better than other nations at instituting welcoming, tolerant laws and policies regarding immigrants, but it has, for better or worse, always been tribal. In other words, tribalism in this country is not a new problem necessitating sudden panic.

Chua seems to recognize this weakness in her case, acknowledging that “American politics have always been identity politics.” She adds: “If we define ‘identity politics broadly, to include cultural and social movements based on group identities, then slavery and Jim Crow were forms of identity politics for white Americans, just as the suffragette movement at the turn of the twentieth century was for women.” If that’s true, then what’s so dangerously different now? How could she imply that things have gotten worse than they were during the Jim Crow Era? Her response: “[A]t different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today” (22).

One problem with this blanket assertion is what it doesn’t say, namely that those group-transcending values that have existed in certain periods were never identical or homogenous across the United States, never part of a consistent narrative with which large swaths of the American population would agree. The imaginary utopian super-group America that Chua promotes and envisions is the product of myth. She recalls the airy, exhilarating rhetoric of the honorable St. Jean de Crèvecœur, a French liberal aristocrat enthused by the democratic possibility inspired by the New World. Yet Crèvecœur’s sentimentality was time bound, reflecting the Enlightenment excitement and optimistic mood out of which sprang the myth of the American Dream. The United States, however, has never been “a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity.”

Myths express narrative truths about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others. The population of the United States has grown steadily and rapidly since the Founding era due to immigration, among other factors. Chua asserts that, “[o]ver the centuries, through the alchemy of markets, democracy, intermarriage, and individualism, America has been uniquely successful in attracting and assimilating diverse populations,” and that “the United States has always been one of the most ethnically and religiously open countries in the world.” She’s accurate by the measure of overall immigrant population and by the nature of our immigration laws in some respects during some periods. To be uniquely successful, however, is not to be fully or even consistently successful.

Perhaps the most unifying idea behind America, the sentiment that more than others achieved national solidarity, involved antimonarchy; for to become American has not required proof of bloodline, feudal hierarchy, or title. Still, for most of our nation’s history, immigration has originated from European nations, where monarchy was slow to dissolve and still exists in residual forms. And if you wanted to climb the social ladder, it didn’t hurt to belong to certain families: the Adamses, the Quincys, the Appletons, the Harrisons, the Cabots, the Lodges, the Roosevelts, the Holmeses, the Thayers, the Coolidges, the Rockefellers, the Peabodys, the Kennedys, the Bushes. America has lacked kings and queens, but it has erected de facto aristocracies.

The linguistic history of the United States might lend substance to Chua’s thesis about anti-tribalism and the possibility of immigrant incorporation into American civic life. Early America was a polyglot society, but the United States did not become a polylingual nation. In the contest for primacy among native dialects—Spanish in Florida and the southwest, French in Louisiana, Dutch in New York, German in Pennsylvania, and the multiple languages of immigrants from China or Japan, Italy or South America—English won out as the common tongue. Yet Chua isn’t talking about language when she extols America the super-group; she ignores arguably the most important corroborating evidence that supports her premise.

Chua sounds, in her anti-tribalism, more like a sanctimonious Barack Obama than our Founding Fathers. Obama’s 2016 speech to the Democratic National convention cast then-candidate Donald Trump, and by implication his supporters, as un-American. “[T]hat is not the America I know,” Obama said of Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention the week before.[3] He continued:

 

The America I know is decent and generous . . . I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s the America I know![4]

 

This America that Obama knows was not known by George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson. But what of Hamilton, the musical-inspiring “immigrant” from the British West Indies, who rose through the military ranks in service to Washington, eventually becoming a prominent Founding Father? He asserted that

 

foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners . . . The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.[5]

 

Hamilton’s conclusion? “The United States has already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others.”[6] So Hamilton was a tribalist and nativist, after all.

What of the enlightened, homespun, and cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin? He declared that

 

the number of white people in the world is proportionably [sic] very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal boy of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people? why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.[7]

 

Turns out Franklin was tribalist and nativist as well.

The super-group representation of America proclaimed by Obama and Chua is attributable to only a sliver of American history in the late twentieth century. It was after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Chua’s view, when “America underwent [a] profound transformation: from a multiethnic nation into something even more unusual: a super-group” (27). But is it proper and anthropologically sound to define America by what amounts to around 22 percent of its history since 1776?  Doing so could be a reason why some white Americans have, in Chua’s words, asserted “ownership of the country’s past” with a tribal attitude: “We built this land of opportunity and invited you in, and now we’re being demonized for its imperfections.

Myths idealize and romanticize truth, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. As a scholar, Chua ought to be in the business of ferreting out the truth rather than distorting or glossing over it through mythmaking. She applauds the inclusiveness of America as a super-group without acknowledging the ironic implication that, a fortiori, those who disagree with her are wrong about their definition of America. Of valid conceptions of America that might seem tribal, or at least out of key with her postwar liberal revivalism, she has nothing favorable to say. She therefore opens herself up to criticism that will only compound rather than mitigate the tribalism she seeks to abate.

Chua betrays her own thesis: From a position of supposed authority, she presumes knowledge about the way ordinary people in the United States think about their country. She thereby reveals her own tribalism, to which she seems blind, and unwittingly presents herself as a member of the elite tribe that she so decries. With the wave of a hand, she lumps Americans into two undesirable categories, the haves and have nots, never taking the time to explain whether and how these categories are permeable or inadequately representative of a diverse population with distinct experiences.

Despite her intended message of peaceable inclusivism, Chua might be  misinterpreted as  insisting that newcomers, local communities, and regional cultures give up their customs and traditions and embrace the assimilationist experiment that she portrays  as essential to American identity. She says, for instance, “we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts—old and young, immigrant and native born, urban and rural, descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slave owners” (203).  This is a beautiful but quixotic proposal, one that could require groups to abandon positions that are integral to their identity and Weltanschauung.

Chua’s proposal also  raises questions about how much coercion she believes to be justified to stamp out opposition or dissent in the name of absolute inclusion. What reasonable thinker would in good faith disagree that  “what is needed is one-on-one human engagement” (201), or that “[w]hen people from different tribes see one another as human beings who at the end of the day want the same things—kindness, dignity, security for loved ones—hearts can change” (202)? The problem, of course, is translating that compassionate sentiment into official policy through government or institutions. People cannot be forced to love each other.

Anti-tribalism is tribal, i.e., a view embraced by certain elite groups in America without regard to the perspective of many ordinary Americans. Political Tribes suggests, therefore, that Chua is part of the problem: her type of tribalism is acceptable, others are not. A more convincing plea would acknowledge that the breezy cosmopolitanism Chua prefers is not accessible to all, and offer a more nuanced depiction of “Americanness” and its multiplicities.

 

[1] Amy Chua, World On Fire (First Anchor Books, 2014), p. 6.

[2] Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 1.

[3] Full text of Barack Obama’s speech available in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-obama-2016-convention-speech-transcript-20160727-snap-story.html.

[4] “Read: President Obama’s Speech at the Democratic Convention,” NPR, July 28, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/07/28/487722643/read-president-obamas-speech-at-the-democratic-convention.

[5] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Vol. XXV July 1800 – April 1802, edited by Harold C. Syrett (Columbia University Press, 1977), 496.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc. (New York Reprint: W. Abbatt, 1918), 224.

The Law Review Model as a Check against Bias?

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Essays, Humanities, Law, Scholarship, Writing on October 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

Allen 2

A version of this essay appeared in Academic Questions.

Could peer-reviewed humanities journals benefit by having student editors, as is the practice for law reviews? Are student editors valuable because they are less likely than peer reviewers to be biased against certain contributors and viewpoints?  I begin with a qualifier: What I am about to say is based on research, anecdotes, and experience rather than empirical data that I have compiled on my own. I do not know for sure whether student editors are more or less biased than professional academics, and I hesitate to displace concerns for expertise and experience with anxiety about editorial bias. There may be situations in which students can make meaningful contributions to reviewing and editing scholarship—and to scholarship itself—but to establish them as scholarly peers is, I think, a distortion and probably a disservice to them and their fields.

Student editors of and contributors to law reviews may seem to be the notable exception, but legal scholarship is different from humanities scholarship in ways I address below, and law reviews suffer from biases similar to those endemic to peer-reviewed journals. Nevertheless, law review submission and editing probably have less systemic bias than peer-reviewed journals, but not because students edit them. Rather, law review submission and editing make it more difficult for bias to occur. The system, not the students, facilitates editorial neutrality.

There are several factors about this system that preclude bias. Because editors are students in their second and third year of law school, editorial turnover is rapid. Every year a law review has a new editorial team composed of students with varied interests and priorities. What interested a journal last year will be different this year. Therefore, law reviews are not likely to have uniform, long-lasting standards for what and whom to publish—at least not with regard to ideology, political persuasion, or worldview.

Law review editors are chosen based on grades and a write-on competition, not because they are likeminded or pursuing similar interests. Therefore, law reviews are bound to have more ideological and topical diversity than peer-reviewed journals, which are premised upon mutual interest, and many of which betray the academic side of cronyism: friends and friends of friends become editors of peer-reviewed journals notwithstanding a record of scholarship. The composition of law review editorial boards is, by contrast, based upon merit determined through heated competition.

Once on board, law review student editors continue to compete with one another, seeking higher ranks within editorial hierarchies.[1] Being the editor-in-chief or senior articles editor improves one’s résumé and looks better to potential employers than being, say, the notes editor. Voting or evaluations of academic performance establish the hierarchies. Moreover, each year only a few student articles are published, so editors are competing with one another to secure that special place for their writing.[2] Finally, student editors usually receive grades for their performance on law review. The result of all of this competition is that law review editors are less able than peer reviewers to facilitate ideological uniformity or to become complacent in their duties—and law reviews will exhibit greater ideological diversity and publish more quickly and efficiently than peer-reviewed journals.

Because of the ample funding available to law schools, scores of specialized journals have proliferated to rival the more traditional law reviews. Many specialized law reviews were designed to compensate for alleged bias. There are journals devoted to women’s issues, racial issues, law and literature, law and society, critical legal studies, and so on. There are also journals aimed principally at conservatives: Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Texas Review of Law & Politics, and Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, to name three. Specialized journals give students and scholars a forum for the likeminded. On the other hand, such journals call for specialization, which students are unlikely to possess.[3]

For these reasons, I believe that bias is less prevalent among law reviews than among peer-reviewed journals. Part of the difficulty in determining bias, however, is that data collection depends upon the compliance of law review editors, who receive and weed through thousands of submissions per submission period and have neither the time nor the energy to compile and report data about each submission. Moreover, these editors, perhaps in preparation for likely careers as attorneys, are often required to maintain strict confidentiality regarding authors and submissions, thereby making “outside” studies of law reviews extremely difficult to conduct.

And then there is the problem of writing about bias at all: everyone can find bias in the system. I suspect that institutionalized bias against conservative legal scholars exists, but nonconservatives also complain about bias. Minna J. Kotkin has suggested that law reviews are biased against female submitters.[4] Rachel J. Anderson has suggested that law reviews are biased against “dissent scholarship,” which, she says, includes “civil rights scholarship, critical legal studies, critical race theory, feminist theory, public choice theory, queer theory, various ‘law ands’ scholarship that employs quantitative or humanistic methodologies, and other scholarship that, at one point in time or another, is not aligned with ideologies or methodologies that the reader values or considers legitimate.”[5] Finally, Jordan Leibman and James White discovered bias favoring authors with credentials, publication records, or experience.[6]

Law student bias seems, from my perspective, more likely to be weighted toward credentials and reputation rather than political persuasion.[7] An established professor with an endowed chair is therefore more likely to receive a publication offer from a law review than an unknown, young, or adjunct professor; and the name recognition of an author—regardless of personal politics—is more likely to guarantee that author a publication slot in a law review. One downside to this is that student editors will accept half-written or ill-formed articles simply because the author is, for want of a better word, renowned. It is common in these situations for students to then ghostwrite vast portions of the article for the author. Another more obvious downside is that professors from select institutions and with certain reputations will be published over authors who have submitted better scholarship. This is the primary reason why I advocate for a hybrid law review/peer review approach to editing.[8]

I’ve mentioned that legal scholarship differs from humanities scholarship. What makes it different is its attention to doctrinal matters, i.e., to the application of law to facts or the clarifying of legal principles and canons. After their first year of law school, students are equipped to study these sorts of matters. They are not unlike lawyers who approach a legal issue for the first time and must learn to analyze the applicable law in light of the given facts. Although the breadth and scope of legal scholarship have changed to reduce the amount of doctrinal scholarship produced and to incorporate interdisciplinary studies, doctrinal scholarship remains the traditional standard and the conventional norm.

Law students have the facility to edit doctrinal scholarship, but not to edit interdisciplinary articles.[9] This point is not necessarily to advance my argument about bias being less inherent in law review editing; rather, it is to circle back to my initial position that inexperienced and inexpert students should not be empowered to make major editorial decisions or to control the editing. As I have suggested, student editors are biased, just as professional peer reviewers are biased—the problem is that students are less prepared and qualified to make sound editorial judgments. If what is needed is an editorial system that diminishes bias, then student editors are not the solution. Law review editing, however, provides a clarifying model for offsetting widespread bias.

It would be difficult if not impossible to implement law review editing among humanities peer-reviewed journals for the disappointing reason that law reviews enjoy ample funding from institutions, alumni, and the legal profession whereas humanities journals struggle to budget and fight for funding. Therefore, I will not venture to say that peer-reviewed journals ought to do something about their bias problems by mimicking law review editing. Such a solution would not be practical. But by pointing out the benefits of law review editing—i.e., the result of less bias due to such factors as competition and turnover in editorial positions—I hope that more creative minds than mine will discover ways to reform peer-reviewed journals to minimize bias.

 


[1]I consider editor selection flawed for some of the reasons Christian C. Day describes in “The Case for Professionally-Edited Law Reviews,” Ohio Northern University Law Review 33 (2007): 570–74.

[2]How this competition works differs from journal to journal. In some cases, the students select which student articles to publish based on an elaborate voting process supposedly tied to blind review and authorial anonymity.  In other cases, faculty decide.

[3]“Many scholars feel that student editors of law review articles, while they were perhaps once competent to evaluate the merit of scholarly articles owing to the much narrower range of topics, have for the last few decades had great difficulty grappling with nondoctrinal scholarship (that is, scholarship dealing with the intersection of law and other disciplines). The authors of law journal articles now increasingly draw from areas such as economics, gender studies, literary theory, sociology, mathematics, philosophy, political theory, and so on, making the enterprise much too difficult for a group of generally young people, who are not only not specialists, but have barely entered the field of law.” Nancy McCormack, “Peer Review and Legal Publishing: What Law Librarians Need to Know about Open, Single-Blind, and Double-Blind Reviewing,” Law Library Journal 101, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 61–62.

[4]Minna J. Kotkin, “Of Authorship and Audacity: An Empirical Study of Gender Disparity and Privilege in the ‘Top Ten’ Law Reviews,” Women’s Rights Law Reporter 35 (Spring 2009).

[5]Rachel J. Anderson, “From Imperial Scholar to Imperial Student: Minimizing Bias in Article Evaluation by Law Reviews,” Hastings Women’s Law Journal 20, no. 2 (2009): 206.

[6]Jordan H. Leibman and James P. White, “How the Student-Edited Law Journals Make Their Publication Decisions,” Journal of Legal Education 39, no. 3 (September 1989): 396, 404.

[7]Many others share this view: “It appears to be generally assumed that, to a significant degree, Articles Editors use an author’s credentials as a proxy for the quality of her scholarship.” Jason P. Nance and Dylan J. Steinberg, “The Law Review Article Selection Process: Results from a National Study,” Albany Law Review 71, no. 2 (2008): 571.

[8]See my Spring 2013 Academic Questions article, “The Law Review Approach: What the Humanities Can Learn.” I am not alone on this score. Day suggests that “this bias can be defeated by blind submissions or having faculty members read the abstracts and articles of blind-submitted articles where the quality is unknown. The names and other identifying information should be obscured, which is common in other disciplines. This is easy to do with electronic submissions. It should be the rule in law reviews, at least at the initial stage of article selection.” “Case for Law Reviews,” 577.

[9]Hence Richard Posner’s suggestion that law reviews “should give serious consideration to having every plausible submission of a nondoctrinal piece refereed anonymously by one or preferably two scholars who specialize in the field to which the submission purports to contribute.” “The Future of the Student-Edited Law Review,” Stanford Law Review 47 (Summer 1995): 1136.

The Problem with Legal Education; or, Another Piece About the Aimlessness, Pointlessness, and Groundlessness of Law School

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on July 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The latest issue of Academic Questions (Summer 2011: Vol. 24, No. 2) devotes most of its content to legal education.  Published by the National Association of Scholars, Academic Questions often features theme issues and invites scholars from across the disciplines to comment on particular concerns about the professoriate.  (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NAS.)  Carol Iannone, editor at large, titles her introduction to the issue “Law School and Other Tyrannies,” and writes that “[w]hat is happening in the law schools has everything to do with the damage and depredation that we see in the legal system at large.”  She adds that the contributors to this issue “may not agree on all particulars, but they tell us that all is not well, that law school education is outrageously expensive, heavily politicized, and utterly saturated with ‘diversity’ mania.”  What’s more, Iannone submits, law school “fails to provide any grounding in sound legal doctrine, or any moral or ethical basis from which to understand principles of law in debate today.”  These are strong words.  But are they accurate?  I would say yes and no.

Law school education is too expensive, but its costs seem to have risen alongside the costs of university education in general.  Whether any university or postgraduate education should cost what it costs today is another matter altogether.

There is little doubt that law schools are “heavily politicized,” as even a cursory glance at the articles in “specialized” law journals would suggest.  These journals address anything from gender and race to transnational law and human rights.

But how can law be taught without politicizing?  Unlike literature, which does not always immediately implicate politics, law bears a direct relation to politics, or at least to political choices.  The problem is not the political topics of legal scholarship and pedagogy so much as it is the lack of sophistication with which these topics are addressed.  The problem is that many law professors lack a broad historical perspective and are unable to contextualize their interests within the wider university curriculum or against the subtle trends of intellectual history.

In law journals devoted to gender and feminism, or law journals considered left-wing, you will rarely find articles written by individuals with the intelligence or learning of Judith Butler, Camille Paglia, or Eve Sedgwick.  Say what you will about them, these figures are well-read and historically informed.  Their writings and theories go far beyond infantile movement politics and everyday partisan advocacy.    Read the rest of this entry »

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