11 January 2011

Is anyone surprised that a law professor touts old-school parenting?

You know what strikes me most about Prof. Amy Chua's "Chinese parents are better than 'Western' parents" article in the WSJ? It's the ultimate example of the "I went through it, and look where I am, so you have to go through it, too" argument. How ultimate? Prof. Chua is at Yale. Yale Law. Law school is the last area of the academy that continues to use a 19th-century model of teaching: lecture halls of 50 or 100 students; lessons led by a professor who likely never actually worked a job in the field he's teaching; the so-called Socratic method of badgering a student with questions on increasingly absurd, hypothetical situations until the professor has made a fool of them in front of their peers; and no actual training in the job of lawyering: how to run a law office, file documents in local courts, or even write a simple will. Once law school is done, you're facing the opportunity cost of not having worked for three years; you've got a debt that you could have used to buy a sizeable home instead; and you still have to pay for bar exam training. And there's a non-zero chance you'll fail that exam anyway.

The only thing that's changed in law schools since The Paper Chase days is that students have laptop computers and can play Scrabble or read Maxim during lectures.

And though some law schools trumpet their experiential teaching philosophy and their co-ops or internships, they still use an old, ineffective teaching model in the classroom: your grade in a course is based almost wholly on a single exam at the end of the term. Even for the hypothetical ivory tower nonsense you're learning, it's a pedagogically unsound way to learn and internalize material. But it won't change, because that's what the profs went through, and look where they are, so all the new students have to go through it, too. It's the same philosophy that keeps medical residents -- the doctors at the bottom of the totem pole -- having to endure 16- and 24-hour shifts. Never mind patient safety, or the residents' mental health or ability to retain what they're learning. The doctors before them had to endure their trial by fire, so by gum the youngsters'll have to do it, too. But while the medical profession is recognizing that it's a stupid reason not to change anything, even the law schools that are changing, or which are newcomers and promise a new way of approaching legal education, are doing so at a glacially slow pace.

All this to say, it's really no surprise that Prof. Chua would be a holdout among old-school believers in what she calls Chinese parenting versus "Western" parenting. She's had a double whammy of it: in her personal upbringing and in her professional life. And if her two trials by fire got her where she is, then it's good enough for her girls, too.

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