Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Student Happiness

In her column in this morning's New York Times, Ann Althouse criticizes John Jay Osborn Jr.'s call to law professors to stop "making our students so unhappy; stop calling on them; listen only to volunteers; don't dictate how they should think; let them tell their own stories." (Althouse and Osborn are both law professors. Osborn is also the author of the Paper Chase.) Althouse thinks that the best way to respect students' "individual autonomy" is not to try to make them happy but to "teach them what they came to learn: how to think like lawyers." She believes that's best done by teaching from cases rather than devoting class time "to the personal expression of law students."

I'm doubtful of the conventional wisdom that law school is mostly about "learning to think like a lawyer." Certainly there are ways of thinking that are especially important to lawyers. A reasonably well educated young adult has already had plenty of experience with them all, though, with or without law school. To the extent that law school is about a "way of thinking," it's mostly about learning to rely on certain ways of thinking consistently in the appropriate situations.

I think Althouse has it right on the personal expression issue, though--although only on Osbornian pro-happiness grounds. A law school class is usually a lot of fun when a talented instructor in good form guides the discussion in interesting directions. Especially in big classes, long expressions of personal views by students--who are usually new to the issues--are often excruciating.