Entry 5

Entry 5

Entry 5
A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 18 2002 10:56 AM

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Yesterday was one of those days of frantic busyness that leaves one with little sense of accomplishment. The previous afternoon the court had shut down its existing e-mail system preparatory to changing over to a new one. An 18-hour hiatus in access to e-mail causes withdrawal symptoms in the electronic-dependent personality, and so it was in an anxious state that I arrived at court yesterday morning to be instructed in the new system. The court's information-technology staff was immensely helpful, but for one who is not to the techy manner born, the first day on a new system is agony. After hours squandered in learning its use, a 10-minute lunch by way of penance, and a dash home for my espresso fix, I had to rush to the law school early to meet a photographer who wanted to take my picture for an article concerned (I think) with my critique of public intellectuals, of which more shortly.

Advertisement

The class was the high point of my day. The mock trial (which lasted a total of six hours, almost as much as a real trial of such a case) ended, the "lawyers" gave their closing arguments, the jurors retired to deliberate. Jury deliberations are of course private, but the nine student jurors deliberated in the hearing of the entire class. It was a slip and fall case, very closely balanced, and the jurors, forgetting they're fledgling lawyers, sounded exactly like real people. They will be better lawyers if they carry into the practice of law a sense of what it is like to participate in a legal proceeding not as a lawyer; and likewise the students who played the role of witnesses at the trial.

This learning by doing—"clinical education," as it is more commonly called—is derided by many law professors as insufficiently intellectual. I wouldn't recommend it for every course. But it should play a larger role in legal education than it does. In first-year civil procedure the students study the litigation process without ever seeing a "complaint," the document that kicks off a civil lawsuit (corresponding to an indictment in a criminal case), or an "answer," a "deposition," and so forth. It's a needlessly, as well as bafflingly, abstract way of teaching a practical subject like law.

Professional education like other education is an honorable calling. Less so some professors' extracurricular pursuits, which brings me back to the subject of the public intellectual, that is, the intellectual, nowadays usually a professor, who opines in the media on matters of current interest. I mentioned yesterday the pounding I am taking for kicking some of these sacred cows. Today I got an e-mail, not from any of the professors I mentioned yesterday, but from another object of criticism, demanding a retraction and apology (I refused).

In the days of the Soviet Union, it was said that if a Russian saw a queue, he immediately joined it. Today, if an American sees a list, he wants to be on it. It doesn't seem to matter what it's a list of. The author of a book titled The 100 Greatest Chicagoans divided careers into 10 categories and listed the top 10 individuals in each one. One of the categories was law, another entertainment, and another crime, so that the 100 greatest Chicagoans included 10 criminals, of whom one was a serial killer. (As he had been executed, he was unable to revel in his distinction.) In my recent book I published a list of the 100 public intellectuals who are most frequently mentioned in the media. I culled these front-runners from a list of more than 500 that my critics have rightly observed is incomplete. But it's unlikely that anyone not on the list who fits my definition of a public intellectual would have enough media mentions to be in the top 100.

Advertisement

It's been assumed despite my disclaimers that I was attempting to create a new order of merit. Actually I was just trying to create an appropriate sample for a statistical investigation. (As Lord Kelvin, a British scientist, once said, "When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.") I wanted to know the breakdown of this curious species by sex, race, age, occupation, and so forth. I particularly wanted to discover whether, for the professors on the list, media prominence corresponded to academic prominence, as measured by the number of citations they received in scholarly journals. It did not correspond. Academics can be media celebrities and scholarly duds. As one of our finest academic public intellectuals, Jean Bethke Elshtain, has put it, "The problem with being a public intellectual is you get more and more public and less and less intellectual."