Paging Professor Kingsfield
Most Americans have a hazy conception (if that) of what goes on in law schools. They may recall the crusty character played by John Houseman (who won an Oscar for the role) in the 1973 movie, Paper Chase, and assume that the fictional Professor Charles W. Kingsfield is typical of law professors today. Or they may believe that the sober, sensible law professors who appear on TV or radio as commentators (e.g., Alan Dershowitz, Jonathan Turley, Hugh Hewitt) are representative of the legal academy generally. Even lawyers may have a recollection in their mind’s eye of their alma mater’s faculty when they attended, and erroneously suppose that nothing has changed.
Sadly, legal academia has become a Fever Swamp of leftist ideology, in which Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (formerly a professor at Harvard Law) would qualify as a centrist among the increasingly wacky professoriate. Imagine the typical humanities faculty at a liberal arts college, only far worse. I have written about this in American Greatness; Professor Stephen Presser recently explored the degeneration of legal scholarship in his magisterial Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law (reviewed here); and Walter Olson surveyed the state of the law schools in his excellent 2011 book Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America.
What happened? Several things intersected in recent decades. Affirmative action in faculty hiring, the triumph of identity politics, the decline of “formalism” in legal theory, the general leftward–and insular elitist–drift of the entire legal culture (including law firms, bar associations, and the judiciary), and the capture of law faculties by committed leftist ideologues as part of the “long march though the institutions,” which has been a stunning success for the Left. Take a look at the highly-politicized nature of student-edited legal periodicals that elite law schools sponsor (which, fortunately, few people actually read), or even the contents of the schools’ flagship law reviews, and you will see a caricature of progressive politics masquerading as legal scholarship. The same is true for course titles, clinical programs, and academic centers, which often emphasize social justice issues such as immigration, “mass incarceration,” and opposition to the death penalty over nuts-and-bolts legal experience that would make graduates useful to paying clients.
I will return to this theme in future blog posts, but my focus today is on the recent controversy faced by Penn law professor Amy Wax (and her co-author, University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander) over a newspaper op-ed defending “bourgeois” values. Wax described the kerfuffle in a recent article in Imprimis, entitled “Are We Free to Discuss America’s Real Problems?” The short answer, at least in America’s law schools, is “no.” In a nutshell, in August Wax and Alexander penned an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer lamenting the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture. They pointed out that many contemporary problems–such as poverty, illegitimacy, and substance abuse–are symptoms of a larger phenomenon: Americans declining to honor time-tested cultural norms that were universally accepted (and usually followed) prior to the 1960s.
Wax and Alexander pointed out that graduating from high school, being employed, getting married before having children, exhibiting thrift, avoiding drunkenness and drug use, respecting authority, obeying the law, and similar traits lead to better social and personal outcomes than their opposite. This is hardly controversial stuff. William Bennett had runaway bestsellers in the 1990s promoting the same message in The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. Indeed, the thesis of Wax’s and Alexander’s op-ed is so self-evidently true that it almost seems banal to express it. Except that in legal academia, bourgeois values are held in contempt. Accordingly, instead of eliciting a bored “so what?” response, Wax and Alexander were furiously denounced. Pointing out the obvious was treated as heresy!
As Wax recounts in her Imprimis article (which is worth reading in full), she was condemned for expressing a point of view that was allegedly racist, white supremacist, hate speech, etc.–a nonsensical charge. Students demanded that she be removed from the classroom. Thirty-three of Wax’s colleagues–half of the entire Penn law faculty!–signed an open letter categorically rejecting her views. As a tenured professor, Wax survived the contretemps–a PC tantrum by intolerant leftists steeped in fashionable post-modern orthodoxy–but the incident provides a disquieting peek into the cloistered chambers of legal academia. Just as Hillary Clinton let it slip during the 2016 presidential campaign that she regards Middle America as a “basket of deplorables,” many Ivy League law professors regard traditional American values to be malignant and out-of-bounds. Wax’s Penn colleagues resoundingly confirmed the charge sometimes made by conservatives–that the Left hates America.
What does this portend? The Wax-Alexander episode is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which is that it shows that America’s elite law schools exist in a bubble, and that the gulf between the self-styled mandarins in the academy and the unwashed masses they disdain is growing. Worse, tomorrow’s lawyers (who will become civic leaders, elected officials, and judges) are being taught by a cadre of intellectuals who despise the values that made America great.