In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education.

Author:Alces, Peter A.
 
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By Julius Getman. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1992. Pp. xvi, 294. $24.95.

Thomas Wolfe, probably slumped over a refrigerator top, formulates the toil of the teacher-scholar:

In this, he told himself, he was just like most of the other piddling instructors

at the School for Utility Cultures, from which he had fled, and

to which he would return to resume his classes in English composition

when his leave of absence expired. They talked forever about the great

books they were writing, or were going to write, because, like him, they

needed so desperately to find some avenue of escape from the dreary

round of teaching, reading themes, grading papers, and trying to strike a

spark in minds that had no flint in them.(1) Wolfe's reflection was autobiographical,(2) and that autobiography supplies the power of his character's observation(3) -- a power sensed most profoundly by those who have too confronted the "dreary round." Most teachers, however, do not respond to their experience the way Wolfe and his character did: Wolfe disliked teaching so much that he chose instead to write the great American novel, or a few of them.(4) The contemporary response of the cynical teacher-scholar is to consider the state of the academy from within and to despair of its decline.

Teachers, and perhaps law teachers more than some others, are introspective,(5) constantly thinking about their place in the cosmos, some coming to Wolfe's conclusion, others less morose. In fact, as attacks on the citadel of higher education have proceeded apace, teachers themselves have often led the assault.(6) While legal education, specifically, has, for the most part, avoided direct attack, higher education more generally is under siege.(7)

One of the most articulate, thoughtful, and provocative representatives of the genre is Professor Julius (Jack) Getman's In the Company of Scholars.(8) Getman has "made it": he joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington in 1963, after a two-year term as a teaching fellow at his law school alma mater, Harvard. He visited at the University of Chicago School of Law in 1972 and then joined the Stanford Law School faculty in 1976. After only two years at Stanford, he joined the Yale faculty in 1978 and remained there until 1986, when he accepted the Earl E. Sheffield Regents Chair at the University of Texas School of Law.(9)

The subtitle of Getman's book is both grand and revealing: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education. Of course, the struggle for the soul of the academy is a continuing one, just as "[t]he condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance...."(10) Perhaps because law professors are introspective, a great deal of our professional time is spent reflecting on, and often despairing of, the state of the legal academy.

The life of a law professor is different, in numerous and important ways, from the life of any other university educator: law professors generally receive higher salaries than professors in other departments; law students necessarily have better credentials than most undergraduates; and, at least in the second and third years, law school classes may be smaller than undergraduate classes. However, in certain respects, the challenges and frustrations of the law teacher are akin to the challenges and frustrations of the English professor. Thomas Wolfe hinted at them; Jack Getman reveals them. Company is the story of Getman's disaffection with much that defines the legal academy -- indeed, the academy generally. Company is a reflection on higher education generally, as Getman does not restrict his judgments to legal academe. However, Getman is a law professor; his teaching experience has been as a law teacher, and he has written as a legal scholar.(11) This review applies Getman's observations and conclusions to law teaching, the source of our common experience, in order to test Company's currency from the perspective that the author and I share.

Throughout Company, the author returns to a tension that, recited at length, begins to resonate like a mantra: the conflict between elitist ambition and egalitarian values.(12) According to Getman, the members of the academy are preoccupied both with their prestigious titles and trappings and, at the same time, with disseminating their message and its benefits to all in earshot, literally or figuratively. However, Getman's attention to the elitism-egalitarianism dichotomy ultimately obscures his vision. While it enables him to reveal the deficiencies, or at least the continuing struggles, of the teacher-scholar, his focus leads him to conclusions that may insidiously distract the academicians from their relentless, if self-absorbed, effort to find meaning in the mission Wolfe and his character found vacuous.

Company is a very strong book, a contribution to our understanding of higher education. It is sometimes depressing, even cynical, but consistently well and entertainingly written. It is also a provocative book. It demands a response from the reader who has invested in the academy. This review responds to Getman by disagreeing with some of his conclusions. Though he and I might well agree on a good deal concerning merit and injustice in the academy, I argue that the different ways in which we would cast our conclusions matter to the academy's conception of itself, to the public's perception of our mission, and, ultimately, to the continuing struggle.

  1. WHAT HATH SOCRATES WROUGHT?

    It may be that the difference between legal study and the other disciplines is never more pronounced than it is in the classroom. At its best, law teaching -- legal education -- empowers. Once you have endured the Socratic method, so the apology goes, you can teach yourself anything. You have gained the power to appreciate how things work, to inquire, and to understand how your own conceptions and preconceptions are broken down, refined, reconstituted, and ultimately molded into understanding. Along the way you endure confusion, regret, self-doubt, and perhaps occasional embarrassment, but all to a purpose -- all to gain the self-knowledge that will truly set you free.

    Getman recognizes that this ideal is too rarely realized, that in teaching, the unconscientious or less-than-brilliant professor may mask incompetence, laziness, and even ennui. Getman reflects on the educational experience from the perspective of both teacher and student, and he discovers fundamental deficiencies that deprive both of their due (pp. 11-14). He is bitter.

    Getman was educated at Harvard's law school and rails against what was done to him.(13) His argument, however, goes beyond that personal experience to identify the fatal flaw of education: teachers prepare students for a life that the teachers themselves have rejected in favor of academia.(14) must be true because the academy would be something of an intellectual pyramid scheme otherwise: somebody must actually do; we all cannot teach.

    Standing alone, those judgments about teaching generally would be too sweeping and indiscriminate to inform thoughtful reform of legal education, so the author elaborates by juxtaposing effective with ineffective teaching.(15) He concludes that the classroom experience is a good one when the fit is right among teacher, teaching method, and student (p. 39). According to Getman, the methods for achieving this fit are various (pp. 15-19). Nothing groundbreaking there. Getman's book goes beyond previous efforts when he acknowledges what every teacher knows, but dares not disclose: personality is at the heart of teaching (p. 19). There is a fine balance between maintaining a thick skin, bolstered by fortified veneer, and caring enough about the classroom experience to be hurt by it. He understands that ego makes teaching possible, "a degree of boldness" (p. 25), especially in light of the teacher's greatest fear, the "fear of being exposed as an intellectual charlatan" (p. 25). The strength of his narrative here reveals itself in his reader's nodding assent.

    The conflict Getman describes may be exacerbated in the law school class conducted in any degree of the Socratic method. The Socratic teacher assumes an artificial distance from the learning process; she facilitates self-revelation and is perhaps at her best when the students do not quite appreciate the method of her madness until its subtlety finally unfolds. It seldom works that way. The chemistry could only rarely be just right, even if teacher and students were each bringing all that they could to the exercise. So the law class works well sometimes and not so well others, serendipitously, Getman realizes. Indeed, it is a wonder that it works as often as it seems to work, though it may seem to work because those making the assessment have so much invested in its seeming to work.

    Company boldly confronts us with the fragility of the classroom experience: we are practicing alchemy, and we dare not deny the production of gold nor acknowledge the lead. Why should the process be so imprecise, have this adventitious hit-and-miss quality? Getman offers a hint, and, if we are honest, we have known it all along: we are distracted. The very ego that makes it possible for us to go into the classroom and exude the confidence of knowing for certain the fundamentally uncertain keeps us waiting for "the call." Jack Getman knew he "was destined for more important things than being a professor at Indiana University";(16) Thomas Wolfe knew he would write "great books."(17)

    Getman argues that the anticipation, the preoccupation with professional advancement, to a greater or lesser extent gets in the way of what we do. It gets in the way of our teaching because it requires us to formulate a persona; to try to live, teach, and write up to it; and then to wonder why the artifice undermines the teacher-class relationship. Certainly ambition may get in the way quite tangibly -- for example, the class the...

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