Election Season at HLS Shows LSAT Tests Intellect, Not Intellectual Honesty

Opinion   /   November 15, 2012  / 


Several months ago a friend and I discussed the differences between Harvard Law School and our undergraduate universities.  One story he told me involved an answer he gave to a professor’s question during his 1L year at HLS—one that was not bulletproof, but one which his undergrad classmates would have accepted or dismissed without protest.  At HLS, another student responded and proceeded to dismantle the argument, picking apart every piece of porous reasoning.

That was the major difference, he and I decided, between HLS and our previous schools.  Here, half-baked arguments don’t get a pass and faulty analysis gets called out.  For that reason, HLS students tend to think before they speak or, more commonly, share on Facebook.  For some, however, such self-restraint becomes an impossibly herculean task during election season.

In one scene from Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” Bruce and two other sharks raise their fins and pledge “fish are friends, not food” during a “Fishaholics Anonymous” meeting.  Bruce hasn’t eaten a fish for three weeks, and he appears to have undergone a sincere change of heart.  However, it only takes one sniff of blood for Bruce, like HLS students, to cast aside all discipline and self-restraint, and revert to more base instincts.

In Bruce’s case, it means “I’m having fish tonight!”  In ours, it means saying—or on Facebook, writing or reposting—arguments taken from the Huffington Post, Drudge, or another partisan website or Facebook page that clearly lack reason or a grounding in fact.  My argument isn’t against general opinion statements like “Romney’s handling of women’s issues shows he’s out of touch.”  I argue against specific statements, or adoptions of statements through “likes,” “shares” or oral repetitions, so devoid of rational analysis that I can hardly believe they come from an HLS student.

The statements and postings from HLS students that best illustrate my point come largely from the political left, which is to be expected given the school’s demographics.  Not only do left-leaning individuals have a numerical advantage, but groupthink and unchallenged grandstanding resulting from a largely one-party student body tends to facilitate the abandonment of critical thought.  However, the political right also has its share of perpetrators.  I reproduced statements from HLS students on both sides to illustrate the point:

A banner with a quote from Mitt Romney saying that he didn’t fight in Vietnam because he was “too important.”

The first Google search result of this quote discredited it as coming from a satire piece.  Apparently Iran and Fox News aren’t the only ones that can be duped by The Onion and others who write headlines so titillating to partisans they can’t possibly be true.

Accusations that Todd Akin claimed that women cannot become pregnant from rape, or that he was implying that the commission of rape could be legitimate.

Todd Akin said: “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. . . .  If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  What Mr. Akin said was wrong enough without warping his words.  He may have based his statement on junk science, and he may have been trivializing the horror of rape with his words, but he did not make either of the above statements, nor can they be inferred.   I suspect the students saying so knew this but wanted even more shock value.

A statement that “When Obama took office, gas prices were half of what they are now!”

There’s a good reason for that.  The world economy was in freefall.  That tends to affect gas prices.

A picture of President Obama and Mitt Romney reads under Obama “I passed a law allowing women to get equal pay,” and under Romney “I hired a woman once.”

Both statements mislead, but the one under Mr. Romney in particular fails to accurately or honestly ground itself in what the candidate claims as his credentials on women’s issues.  “I hired a woman once” likely stems from Mitt Romney’s hiring of a large number of women into his cabinet, which he argued showed his support for women in the workplace.  One can argue with that premise without distorting what he said.

A side-by-side comparison of various statistics of President Bush at the end his first term (2004), and President Obama after his (2012), including the GDP growth rate, unemployment rate, and median income, each favoring President Bush.

There was a very important series of events in 2008 that make these sorts of comparisons useless.

A post telling Mitt Romney not to blame gun violence on single parents.

This would be legitimate, except Mitt Romney never did this.  In the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney said (in relation to gun violence): “Wherever possible we need benefit of two parents in the home raising kids… and that’s not always possible—there are a lot of great single moms and dads—but if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty [and being involved in gun violence] goes down dramatically.”  If you disagree with his reasoning, attack that.  Don’t make a caricature of his position.

Criticism implying that Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” statement means he thinks business owners didn’t work for what they had.

I think we can all agree that President Obama meant to insert “by yourself” into that sentence.  If you want to say the statement reveals his hostile attitude toward the private sector in general, fine, but make that argument.

An unqualified claim that Mitt Romney wanted to “Let Detroit go bankrupt.”

The words are those of the New York Times, not Mitt Romney.  What Mr. Romney actually said is: “A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs. . . .  In a managed bankruptcy, the federal government would propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate with a bailout check.”  Criticize his plan, but don’t suggest he wanted to shut every factory and put the workers out on the street.

The next time a presidential election rolls around, none of us will be HLS students.  We won’t have professors like Joseph Singer or Benjamin Sachs, who politely hint when we’ve made a flawed argument.  We won’t have a room full of students eager to correct or counter any errant statements.  By then we will have to have developed, by ourselves, an instinct that extends beyond the controlled classroom environment and compels us to research that Moveon.org banner with the too-good-to-be-true quote, to leave statements in context and debate the merits of the ideas they propose, and to refrain from misrepresentations, misquotations and distortions even when they hang like pieces of red meat, ready for political exploitation.

I don’t want to merely criticize the disappointing level of discourse, although such criticism is certainly deserved.  I want to help change that discourse to one where we make sure we’re arguing against the true position of the opponent, instead of what we wish it would be; one where we make worthwhile the three years we spend here learning to analyze, argue and reason in both an effective and intellectually honest manner.  We attend one of the best law schools in the world alongside hundreds of incredibly intelligent and insightful classmates.  The bar should be higher here, and it’s not difficult to raise it.

Darren Gardner is a 2L. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

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5 Responses to Election Season at HLS Shows LSAT Tests Intellect, Not Intellectual Honesty

  1. The fact that you think “The statements and postings from HLS students that best illustrate my point come largely from the political left” suggests you have succumbed to the sort of shallow ideological posturing you condemn in your article.

    • Totally disagree. I don’t think it suggests ideological posturing. Darren’s observation reflects the fact that most HLS students side with the left (verifiable by the Crimson’s surveys, for example, showing the high percentage of HLS students supporting Obama). It’s important to mention because I would guess that at least a few students who read this will assume that the criticism only applies to those who don’t share their views. Since this is calling out HLS students, it is more powerful by singling out the views of the vast majority of HLS students (in the realm of 70-80%, depending how you define “left”). Moreover, I would also guess that most conservative students who have made their way through academia as conservatives and found themselves at Harvard think twice before posting something inane when they have hundreds of HLS friends who would almost certainly jump on them. Left-leaning ridiculousness faces far less backlash in these elitist circles because it agrees with the prevailing view and doesn’t cause as much of a lurch in their stomach. So no, this is not “ideological posturing” – it’s a simple reflection of the demographic realities of Harvard Law School.

      As someone who more often than not sides with the left, I think it’s absolutely right to point the finger squarely at the left. The hypocrisy amongst my HLS colleagues was deplorable throughout this election season, and I think cutting down on the groupthink is usually a good idea.

  2. This column might have been clearer if you used less examples and spent more space explaining what you think the discrepancy is. For example, I don’t know what other conclusion from “if it’s a legitimate rape” you could draw than that some rapes are legitimate and others aren’t; otherwise the clause would be meaningless. If you’re saying instead that liberals think “legitimate rape” refers to the commission of the crime rather than the claim of rape, I don’t know what liberal news source or facebook wall you are following, as I follow many and haven’t seen anything like that. People hung on the phrase because it implies if a woman disrupts Akin’s world view by saying she got pregnant via rape, her claim of rape wasn’t “legitimate.” Maybe you could include links to sources or screen grabs of Facebook walls to make it clearer what unfair interpretation you’re talking about. Some discrepancies are clear, but some aren’t.

  3. Talk about a biased sample. Students who are particularly drawn to partisan politics (to the point of making Facebook posts on the subject) are dumber than average. Far dumber.

    The style of argument you highlight is definitely representative of the politically inclined student population at HLS. But it is a mistake to assume that this group is representative of the student body as a whole. This group only imagines that it is. This misunderstanding is reinforced by posts that comment on the doings of this group as if these people are the only people in the world.

    These people assume that everybody who isn’t at the [campus political group X] meetings must be attending the [campus political group against X] meetings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people have more important things to think about.

  4. Well said.

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