Eight years since my last college class wrapped at Williams College, I still have to remind myself continually that the academic world I was introduced to in 1965 and that shaped my intellectual and professional development no longer exists. At the same time, I literally cannot pick up a single issue of the New York Times or the Boston Globe without seeing the impact of the ideas that first surfaced on campus in the late 1960s and now, four generations later, have become mainstream among the intellectual elite. These ideas--or customs--include an emphasis on various forms of identity, a preference for emotional over rational responses to difficult issues, and above all, the belief that modern western civilization is an oppressive conspiracy that needs to be "re-imagined." Yet I still look at the web site of the Harvard Crimson once or twice a week to see what is going on. My last discovery is this article about Hispanic student activism at the Law School, entitled, "In Decades-Long Push to Diversity Harvard Law Faculty and Course Offerings, Students Seek to Amplify Previously Unheard Voices." I will quote the first few paragraphs.
"In 2015, Juan A. Espinoza, a current third-year student at Harvard Law School, spent his summer participating in one of the Law School’s enrichment programs. Espinoza recalled walking through a famous hall where the portraits of professors were displayed. He remembers asking himself how it was possible there was so little representation.
“'How crazy is it that there isn’t a single Latino up on these walls?' Espinoza said. 'I remember having a very visual image of custodial staff — two Latino immigrants — cleaning the portraits of these professors and yet, there being no one from my community or any Latino immigrants represented on the faculty.'
“'They just don’t represent us here,' Espinoza said. 'It’s true in the curriculum, it’s true in the classrooms, it’s true in the faculty, it’s true across all course offerings, it’s true in every resource office — we’re not represented here. We just are not, and they know it.'"
Now let me contrast that with the way in which law school students, including those from minorities (and I knew one such very well in the mid-1960s, and met others through him), thought about their status as law students way back then. They, like every other educated person, were intensely aware of civil rights issues in the nation at that time, and how the law related to them. We were all living through an era of extraordinary civil rights legislation. They were also alert to signs of racism in individual faculty members. But they were focused on their educational experience, as their training as lawyers, in courses like contracts, civil procedure, constitutional law, administrative law, commercial transactions, etc. etc. Those are the legal issues that lawyers need to understand to help society function--regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. And learning about them was a very demanding task. In their first two years, many of them studied six to eight hours a day, and I saw them agonizing over their exams. The faculty, in short, had no doubt that they were offering all their students a very important and worthwhile product, and the students understood that they had implicitly accepted that assumption by applying, enrolling, and paying their tuition. Of course, many of the students had big long-term financial goals as well. That is one thing that certainly has not changed.
47% of Harvard Law School students are now listed as "students of color," which means that somewhere between 50 and 100 of the entering class of 502 students are probably Hispanic. I am sure that they are, in the traditional sense of the word, a diverse group, with different backgrounds, intellectual interests, attitudes towards their identity, and career goals. I do not believe, in short, that all of them think just like Mr. Espinoza by any means. Yet his concerns about "representation" are the concerns of ethnic activists and of large bureaucracies at most of the colleges and universities in the country. They have arrived at their college, university or professional school angry and they keep themselves angry for their whole time there. Rather than focusing on really learning how law and justice work in America, they criticize the makeup and curriculum of the school because it doesn't support their idea of justice. The whole long article includes many more details. They have no compunction about doing this because they believe their background gives them insights into these issues that the less diverse faculty cannot have.
Critical race theory--originally developed at Harvard by Law School professor Derrick Bell--holds that the legal system is just one of many power structures designed to oppress nonwhites. The article also quotes activists demanding that the theory be mainstreamed into the curriculum. Like the student radicals among my contemporaries--who in 1968-9 persuaded the Social Relations Department at Harvard to let them offer a fully accredited course on student radicalism--they have no doubt that they, not the faculty, know best. Again I quote:
"Zoe Russell, a founding member of the Law School’s Bell Collective for Critical Race Theory alongside fellow law students McKenna and Olivia M. Castor ’17, said her organization is hoping to 'implement more institutionalized spaces,' including co-education groups where students can teach and learn various aspects of critical race theory.
“'We’re hoping that this model will let HLS know that critical theory is something that is valuable and important to every part of legal practice and application, regardless of whether you’re going into a firm or you’re dedicating your life to public interest,' Russell said. 'That this is something that they need to invest more in.'
"[Law School spokesperson Jeff] Neal wrote that the Law School was 'committed' to teaching courses about race and racial justice, 'subjects that are woven into the fabric of countless courses.'
Castor, a second-year student and steering committee member of the Law School’s Critical Race Theory conference, said that Harvard should introduce more 'context-rich courses,' unlike many of the standard classes where professors actually instruct students to disregard background information and personal experiences when approaching a case.
"'That is not at all how the law works,' Castor said. “You have judges who are deciding the law, you have legislators who are writing a law — all these people are human beings. The idea that they go in and they’re able to somehow strip themselves of context when they’re deciding which way they want to enshrine doctrines makes absolutely no sense.'”
Castor, in short, wants to throw out the idea of law as an impersonal, rational institution that can try to treat everyone equally. Granted that such law never works perfectly, many of us still believe that it is our only realistic option, especially in a diverse society. Similar ideas have done enormous harm to the humanities--in which I worked--over the last five decades. The disciplines of history and literature bear the responsibility for their own decline, I know, because they now produce so little work, and so few courses, that deserve genuine intellectual respect. I don't know if there has been a decline in legal instruction parallel to what has taken place in the humanities, but such a decline might have created the intellectual vacuum that some student activists are trying to fill. Higher education has many problems,. most of them related to money. Because it has too many administrators and faculty, it costs much too much. Students inevitably resent the cost, and the cost also has helped make higher ed--led by institutions like Harvard Law School--the training ground for our most powerful and richest institutions, which in turn tends to make them still richer. I do wish that just a few institutions might react to the current crisis they face by returning to the values, institutional structure, faculty-student ratios, and minimal administrative structure of another era. Unfortunately I see no sign of this happening.