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à  la mode

I excused myself from thinking about lawyering and law school many months ago, but many of my friends and colleagues are attorneys. It is through Paul Mirengoff at Power Line that I learn of George Mason University’s new requirement for law students: a course called The Founders’ Constitution, which aims to transfer to young lawyers the story of the composing of the Constitution—what it was intended to mean, what it says, and what it meant, and what it means. (Not coincidentally, these four are one.)

The course website begins with this line: “Law school curricular development requires making guesses about the future of legal practice, but that should not mean constantly chasing the latest trend.”

Of course, trendiness is big with academics nowadays. This spring Dartmouth offers its annual class on Bob Dylan, which course upon fulfillment of its requirements does indeed carry an academic credit. (The wine tasting course, which is practical and holds its students to a higher standard, does not.) As George Mason shows with the rapid ascendancy of its law school and even its college, there is another trend quietly seeping, expanding underneath the U.S. News Top 10, getting ready to choke them. I speak of the trend, the new style, of being resolutely opposed to the employment of fashion in the education of young minds. There is a strain of thinking that says knowledge ought to be conveyed in every lecture; that in human knowledge a hierarchy exists which privileges that knowledge, that art, that political system, those facts which have lasted and have been confirmed through success. Nothing succeeds like success, so why not start out by giving pupils all the best knowledge first? Mankind’s heritage thus bequeathed, teachers can then focus on the resuscitation of failed ideas, or the grasping in the ether toward new ones.

This is the new vogue. The young, nimble institutions understand it. George Mason is exemplary; and as the value of prestige continues to plummet George Mason’s apprehension of the vapidity of fashion will begin to pay significant dividends in the form of top-flight students selecting a hard and definite education rather than a fog-fraught one with a fancy name. That isn’t to say the old guard is entirely adrift either: Yale has a Directed Studies program; Princeton has a Humanistic Studies program; Harvard has a Core Program; Columbia has its required Core; and Stanford has a Structured Liberal Education Program. Dartmouth has some catching-up to do in this respect.

Because I am in the position of being a known commentator on American higher education, I am frequently asked to explain what accounts for the wild political bias of the academy. I start by explaining that only the faculty and the deanery are wild, not the students. The students are smart and will leave college soon. They are mostly Democrats, yes, but they also mostly wear The North Face brand jackets. Beside the real activists most students are moderate and contemplative.

Today’s faculty—at least the subset one might call zealous—preach their biases because they were themselves educated in the age of radicalism and know little else. They take on the pale of missionaries, inserted into a world that seems foreign because it had quietly evolved past them while they were in their Ph.D. programs. They are jealous about and proud of their orthodoxy—though they purport to abhor religious dogma—and they teach with a slant in order to lighten the world.

Students regard the show as exciting for four years, much as for four seconds one regards as fascinating the home exercise machine that latches onto one’s belly, rapidly jiggles the fat, and we are to believe thereby melts the fat. One brooks nonsense, but only for so long.

The deanery, I tell people, is an institution at the top composed of people who were unsuccessful in business and at the bottom of people who were unsuccessful in practicing psychotherapy. This is only a little bit of an exaggeration.

But then I tell inquirers that the prospects are bright. For one, every faculty has a trove of wonderful professors who need only to be found. A students gets better at this with age. And the wonderful professors are not those whose personal views gel with the student’s; they are professors who love to teach, are excited about the material at hand, select the very best material, and then perform the miracle that is the transfer of knowledge. Whatever the brochures may say, the fulfillment of these qualities is rare.

And the prospects are brighter still, because the students of the eighties and nineties are now becoming full-time professors. And they are far more reasonable.

Which is all to say, the sun also rises; although it may, from time to time, need a shove.

UPDATE: George Potts discusses a similar topic here.


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