By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law
Most of us have heard the lament from colleagues that, “Because K-12 and undergraduate has changed so much since we went to school, students enter law school today undereducated and so unaccustomed to rigor, that law schools need to invest an inordinate amount of time just to enable students to be competent at the things that lawyers need to do.” Corollary comments are: students can’t write, and their grammar is deficient yada yada yada.
Taken to its logical extreme, this sentiment means the practice of law and civilization is essentially dead because kids no longer learn the things needed to become successful lawyers. There are a few things which have been deemed correct assumptions of our civilization at different times in our history. Reflect on the reactions of people at the time as they slowly discovered these things were not true:
- The sun rotates around the earth;
- The earth is flat;
- The earth is at the center of the universe;
- Women are inferior to men;
- Continents are immovable; and
- The ether is a necessary transmission medium for light.
We can all agree that these are no longer true. Yet are the following assumptions we cling to as law professors equally false?
The first assumption is there is value to the minutia of grammar and our students are deficient because their grammar and punctuation skills are not “like ours were.” A counter narrative, however, says ‘Grammar is classist, it’s ableist, and it’s oppressive. It reeks of privilege, and those who spend their time correcting others’ grammar do too.” One wonders whether Shakespearean elitists of the 16th century could ever imagine that “thine grammar would become archaic and clumsy.” Grammar may also be a race-based check on valuation of individuals according to their conformance with an artificial social construct.
The second assumption is that today’s students don’t know how to work. I will suggest here that what efficient and hard work was 10 years ago is in large part inefficient and archaic today. Today’s students have instant access to information that we had to “work hard” to get. As a result, what we envision as “productive hard work,” needed to get information is now inefficient and useless because they can ask Siri and get the same information. Their time is better spent creatively using information rather than memorizing and obtaining it.
If you don’t believe me, try to learn a legal concept with which you are unfamiliar. 11 years ago, that concept for me as a new teacher was 11th amendment immunity and the Seminole Tribe case. I spent hours researching law review articles, reading cases and trying to figure out where a good starting point was for the doctrine. I mentioned the struggle I was having to my 16-year-old son who said, “Read Wikipedia first.” I did and in three and a half minutes was able to have a clearer starting point for the doctrine than after three or four days of “hard work.”
Much of the research on Millennials and Generation Z suggests that professors who have information and pass on knowledge are viewed as close to useless by today’s students. In order to engage these students, we need to provide context and demonstrate how information and knowledge is useful in current and relevant ways. That’s not their fault. Knowing stuff is no longer a big deal but the creative use of the information everyone has access to is what’s important today.