BY DAVID KATZ
Hi, my name is _________ and I am a stereotypical __________. What is it about law school that encourages the development of caricatures? It seems sometimes that each one of us was assigned a role upon our arrival here, and we are expected to behave in a manner befitting that role. This gives each of us approximately half a day to decide who we want to be, and then we must abide by that decision for the next three years. For some of us, the way we look determines our roles even before we get a chance to open our mouths.
Every section has to have its rebel/hippie, with some sort of unconventional haircut or mode of dress, expected to support all sorts of progressive causes and be interested in a career serving the greater good of mankind. Then there is the section “formal” who spends time debating the merits of Yale v. Harvard and other such inanities. You have the older, non-traditional students, and the young “legally blonde” party girls. You have some sort of feminist (occasionally militant), and the class libertarian. You may even have a real live Republican. The only common thread between them is that they are all supposed to fit a mold and are forbidden from deviating. Is this supposed to be normal? Why would this sort of pattern develop?
In my opinion, there are a number of factors that lead to the development of this phenomenon. First of all, many entering students find themselves faced with a class that is much more diverse than what they are used to. This may be partially due to the fact that many students come from colleges that draw heavily on one particular demographic, be it geographical, race, socioeconomic, age or religion. This is also the result of the extreme dedication to diversity that makes Harvard such an interesting place to be. This diversity challenges our ability to make accurate judgments about our peers. We find ourselves much more comfortable with people being stereotypical caricatures of a certain “type” of person. Typecasting students makes them more predictable than the messy reality allows people to really be.
Often, the professors themselves contribute to this rigid system of classification. After all, how many times does a professor have to call on “our class constitutional scholar” before the rest of the students start to think of him in only those terms? Professors are constantly utilizing what they know about students’ political beliefs in order to solicit a specific opinion that they can then build on or contest. This contributes to an atmosphere in which students are caricatures of a specific political or economic school of thought.
In some cases, students may not be any more than just caricatures. Some of us enter law school after an extended stay in the highly theoretical world of academic learning. Often this leaves those students without the benefit of having their ideas and opinions tested by the fires of reality. This may at times leave them with ideas that may seem good in theory, but are lousy or over-idealistic in practice. Sometimes the absence of real world experience leaves students with a set of ideas that lack the depth and strength necessary for a person to be able to individualize his or her belief system. On the flip side, students who spent time working or engaged in other pursuits before returning to school tend to enter the academic world with their own preconceived notions. Among those is the belief that they are somehow superior to the rest of the student population by virtue of them being older and wiser. To the extent that they are expected to have that attitude, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Overall, I think this stereotyping is the result of the overload we are threatened with when faced with the prospect of assimilating eighty (if not more) new people into our lives. So the simplest thing to do is to make up some sort of blurb about each person and associate it with them. Our classmates become neat little paragraphs that govern our expectations of their behavior and the way we should interact with them. On the occasions when they stray from the course we get confused and try to nudge them back in that direction.
These subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) hints are bound to have an impact on our perception of ourselves. If certain behaviors on our part get rewarded and encouraged by our classmates, we are likely to repeat that type of behavior in an effort to gain their approval. The unfortunate result of this is that some of us are prodded into roles that may not be so functional in the outside world. While in school many of us are fully immersed in the law school experience and are afforded little opportunity to test our personal development against the outside world. This can result in a rude awakening when we discover that the patterns of behavior that we have engrained in ourselves are not so well received by the general public.
Over time, this may change. I am hoping that as we get to know each other better we will develop a circle of friends with whom we have a relationship that surpasses the exchanging of clichés. However, due in part to the large size of our class, there will probably always be some students who we continue to view as walking caricatures.
David Katz is a 1L. His column will appear regularly.