Mr. Barry’s Classroom



(Based on a true story)

The film opens on a small, packed classroom, desks arranged in curved semicircular rows.  One side of the classroom seems to be embroiled in some kind of war with the other side.  Children are yelling, throwing balls of crumpled up paper, and generally causing mayhem throughout the classroom.  A young, well-dressed teacher sits at a desk at the front of the room, his head in his hands.  Behind him, the blackboard reads “Good morning, class,” and below that, “Mr. Barry.” 

The teacher slowly lifts his head and yells at the class.

“All right, children, it’s time for recess!”

The class is quiet for just a moment, but quickly ignores Mr. Barry and resumes their yelling and fighting.

“Class, I said it’s time for recess! Get your coats and head outside!”

This time the class remains silent.  Finally, one of the boys on the left of the classroom speaks up.

“Mr. Barry, I don’t think we’re going to have recess today.”

The teacher looks exasperated.

“Harry, of course you’re going to have recess.  It’s on the schedule.  Every day, this class goes out to recess.  That’s just the way it is.  The founders of this school decided that children need exercise during the day, so they put recess in the schedule, and it’s been that way ever since.”

Another boy from the other side of the room pipes up.

“But Mr. Barry, we don’t need to have recess to get exercise.  Some of us will just take hall passes and go outside to play while a few of us stay here in the classroom, and then we’ll switch off.  We’ll all get plenty of exercise but we’ll never actually have to go to recess!  Isn’t that a genius plan, Mr. Barry?”

The teacher sighs.

“Mitch, that’s insane.  Why wouldn’t you all want to go to recess together?  Besides, you know I can’t grade your homework until you’re all out at recess.”

Both boys smile.

“Yes, Mr. Barry, we know.”

The classroom resumes its chaos and mayhem.  The teacher buries his head in his hands again, seemingly at a loss for what to do.  Eventually, he looks up, his face a mask of desperate anger.

“Fine!  Stay here!  I don’t care!  I say you’re at recess, so you’re at recess!”

He stands up abruptly and stomps over to the file cabinet, retrieving the answer key before sitting down to grade the children’s homework, red pen flying across the pages.

The camera pans to the door of the classroom.  A shadow approaches.  A man with oddly styled gray hair and large, thick glasses looms in the doorway. 

“Mr. Barry, what the deuce is going on here?  Explain yourself!”

The teacher looks up, startled. 

“Principal Sentelle, I, uh, I was, uh, just grading some papers –“

“I can see that, Mr. Barry.  Why is young Mr. Durbin here shooting a spitball at Mr. McConnell?”

The teacher smiles grimly.

“I’ve no idea, Principal, but I hardly think it’s my responsibility.  The class is at recess, after all.”

The principal looks over to the left side of the classroom.

“Mr. Reid, is this true?  Is the class at recess?  Why are you not outside, enjoying this fine weather?”

The boy grins.

“No, Principal Sentelle, we’ve decided not to have recess today.  We’d rather continue the work of learning and enriching our young minds than spend our time out on the monkey bars.”

The principal turns back to the teacher.

“Well, Mr. Barry, there you have it.  The class is well within its rights to decide not to go to recess.  And what’s more, Mr. Barry, is that homework I see on your desk?  Surely you’re not grading homework with children in the classroom?”

The teacher looks startled.

“But sir, they were at recess!  When else am I supposed to grade their homework?  You know we tried having them switch papers and grade each other—remember how badly that failed?”

The principal looks grim and shakes his head slowly.

“I understand your plight, Mr. Barry, and I sympathize.  But school regulations make it clear that this is how it has to be.  I think Superintendent Scalia would agree with me on this—you simply can’t grade homework with children in the classroom.”

The principal turns around and walks out, clearly glad to be leaving the noisy, chaotic classroom.  He shuts the door with a bang.

The teacher turns back to the class and surveys the mayhem with a worn-out, despondent look.  He looks down and murmurs.

“I knew I should have left this job to Mr. Mittens.  He would have solved this whole recess problem on day one.”

Nathan Reeves is a 1L. His column runs every other Tuesday.

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

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

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 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.

Swinging the Swing States

Americans represent only 5 percent of the world’s population. Given America’s superpower status, the remaining 95 percent of humanity surely has preferences about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney sits in the Oval Office.

This begs a question. Is it possible that the swing states that will decide the U.S. presidential election might not be Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, but rather Russia, China, and Israel?

Although foreign states don’t vote, their leaders are surely aware that the U.S. election will boil down to narrow electoral polls where even a 1 percent swing might determine the next leader of the free world. And there are hundreds of possible global events that might swing the U.S. electorate. For example, Russia could launch a test missile, China could let the yuan appreciate 5 percent, or Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. And almost any one of America’s major trading partners—Canada, India, Brazil, Mexico, or the Europeans—could tinker with the Sunshine State’s GDP by importing more (or fewer) Florida bananas, depending on which man they would prefer to see in the White House.

This introduces an interesting dynamic into the U.S. presidential election, where President Obama—despite being the most powerful man on earth—might have to persuade foreign swing states to refrain from actions that might impede his path to re-election. In March, for instance Obama was overheard asking Russian president Dmitry Medvedev for “more space […] particularly with missile defense”—until after the November ballot.

“After my election I have more flexibility,” said Obama, his hand touching Medvedev’s.

To which the outgoing Russian president replied, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Since then, notice how quiet the Russian Bear has been in recent months? Perhaps the Russians might prefer to avoid a Republican White House, especially after Romney labeled Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” that “fight[s] every cause for the world’s worst actors.” Perhaps it is possible that the Russians are aware of how their actions might appear to American eyes. Perhaps the Russians don’t want to do anything that would risk making Obama’s “reset” strategy look naive and foolish.

And that’s just the Russian Bear. Now consider the Chinese Panda.

In a summer editorial subtitled “Swing elections states are among America’s top exporters,” the Wall Street Journal stated that Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan all make the list of top-15 state exporters to China. Given that swing state GDP is so heavily dependent on foreign trade, is it possible that China has the power to swing the U.S. election by asking a few Chinese companies to accelerate (or delay) some purchases of U.S. goods? Basically, China could give America a temporary multibillion-dollar trade boost (or bust), which is loose change compared to China’s $3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves. In return, China might get rewarded with a 1 percent swing in a purple state that ensures the election of its preferred president.

Is it possible that global events are less random than they seem? Is it possible that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows that an Israel-Iran war would swing U.S. perceptions of Obama’s leadership abilities, might be thinking of possible concessions to wring from Uncle Sam? Like a red line on Iran’s nuclear program?

Come November, most Americans assume that the U.S. election will boil down to the choices of Florida retirees, Ohio soccer moms, or Virginian farmers. But given the globalized, interconnected world that we live in, is it truly reasonable to assume that American elections will be decided by Floridians, Ohioans, and Virginians alone—and nobody else on the planet?

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays

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

Ten Things Romney and Obama Should Do Instead of Debating

Soon, it will be October, which means shorter days, all sorts of pumpkin-flavored shit, atrociously reffed football games, and the beginning of a seemingly interminable series of debates. Is anyone looking forward to these debates except to catch Mittens finally losing it and cussing out poor people? Despite the fact that Romney’s job for two years was to convince people to believe in a religion based on some golden plates found in upstate New York (do you know what kind of homunculi live in upstate New York?!) and that we are all the “spirit-children” of God, he is surprisingly terrible at debating. Also, while Barack is fairly charismatic, he’s probably fresh out of promises to break in his first year of reelection.  Thus, even though this season’s television has already proven to be terrible (Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson, a whole mess of shows about gays that are indistinguishable from one another, and—as Ryan Lochte-cum-Seth MacFarland said—Goon), there are still things I’d rather see than Romney and Obama debating this Fall.

Ten things I’d rather watch Romney and Obama do this October:

1. Rap Battle: As Eminem has shown, the whiter you are, the better your chances, so I would put my money on Mittens. I mean, he even has a ballsy rap name all ready to go. Also guys, he grew up in Detroit and he had to deal with all those poor people (who were his servants)!

2. Beer Pong: I gotta say, this one is slanted to Barack. Romney probably hasn’t had a drink in decades, which explains so many things. On the other hand, if they’re playing doubles with their running mates, good money’s on Ryan, who can fratstar it up with the best of them. Hill Dog plays winner.

3. Dance Off: A myriad of possibilities here. We could do a Zoolanderesque model-off, a Magic Mike-style strip-off, or just a plain old DDR dance battle (assuming we can get that long-haired, middle-aged, greasy fatty off the DDR console).

4. Spelling Contest: Just don’t give Mittens “America.”

5. A Fight to the Death: How convenient would this be? Think of all the campaign money we could save if we just churned this election out Mad Max style. Also, we can feel good about the fact that POTUS is a bonafide killer. In a Hunger Games-like twist, we could make Sasha and Malia go up against the Mormon Boys and let God sort them out.

6. Mechanical Bull: If for no other reason than to see either of them wearing cowboy boots. Maybe even chaps.

7. Scavenger Hunt: First one to find Barack’s birth certificate, Romney’s tax records, Barack’s long-lost son and Romney’s other three wives wins.

8. Foxy Boxing: Finally, a way to involve the potential First Ladies that doesn’t involve baking. While Michelle has some pretty scary arms, Ann Romney has battled cancer, MS and women’s rights. This one would be a toss-up.

9. A Literal Pissing Contest: Don’t cross streams!

10. Gay Chicken: Everyone loses.

 Lisa Wang is a 3L. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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

Election League America

It’s an election year, and October is almost upon us, so it’s finally time to tear ourselves away from Hulu and Netflix for a few minutes to learn a thing or two about some of the major candidates. The upcoming elections will impact issues important to the Harvard legal community, like whether the judicial nomination landscape will be such that Justice Ginsburg can finally escape the indignity of being captioned another four years (JK—we love Ginsburg too much to ever stop captioning her). Now, this column doesn’t trade in the high-flying, Shakespearean allusions that usually get thrown around in political coverage, so we’ll be teaching you about the candidates in the vernacular of pop culture: DC Comics superheroes.

Barack Obama—Aquaman (JLA)

There’s no doubt that when Democrat Barack Obama was first elected President, his Justice League analogue would have been Superman. He was a symbol of hope, progress, and the American way. He seemed like he could do more than his peers, and even his otherness, like the Kryptonian’s, signaled American greatness (at least to enough people to get him elected).

However, over the last four years it’s become apparent that Obama cannot fly the world backwards rapidly enough to undo our economic problems, and he’s come to be regarded as lame in a similar way to Aquaman. There’s nothing wrong with him per se, but he does not seem have abilities or achievements as cool as a superhero should and therefore has become the butt of a lot of criticism. After a previous election and four years of presidency, no one is really interested in Obama’s biography anymore, just as no one cares what happens in Aquaman’s solo title. The important stuff Aquaman does probably occurs beneath the ocean, and therefore doesn’t seem to have a lot of import for people on land. Similarly, we’re pretty sure Obama is doing something important to try and help the economy or other presidential stuff, but only a couple of things prominent enough to get our attention. Obama also gets criticized for worrying about the oceans too much.

Mitt Romney—Batman (Christopher Nolan Films)

A lot has been written about Batman being conservative and Nolan’s films in particular being a case for Neocon policies, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shares more than a political wing with Batman. Like Batman, Romney doesn’t have the special abilities that usually qualify someone to be a successful politician/superhero like tact, stage presence or heat vision. Instead, wealth inherited from his parents, like Bruce Wayne’s, is Mitt’s superpower. Both grew up as children of privilege in crumbling, once-great cities and were seemingly driven to greatness by the wrongs done to their parents (losing an election is a death to these political types). And both seemed to get their father’s legacy somewhat twisted—Batman followed his father’s mission of helping the financially desperate by punching them in the face, and Mitt followed his father’s legacy of serving the auto industry and releasing his tax returns by not doing either of those things. Finally, both Batman and Romney are trying to head off a dangerous attack on society from the people who complain about starving while other people live like Bruce Wayne/Mitt Romney, and Batman and Mitt are both pretty sure those whiners are in league with foreign terrorists.

Elizabeth Warren—Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman)

Democrat Elizabeth Warren is running for a Massachusetts Senate seat against Scott Brown, and is the token female candidate people have decided to care about in this election, like Wonder Woman in the Justice League. Both women also have difficulty communicating with the constituencies they wish to help. One has trouble connecting with normal people because she comes from a classical, insular society with modes of communication and values different from the world at large; the other has a similar problem because she’s an Amazon. Warren and Wonder Woman share another common narrative problem—shitty villains. Compelling Wonder Woman stories were easy in the Golden Age of comics when she was fighting the Nazis, but since the end of WWII, the Amazon has been stuck fighting lame villains like Cheetah, who is so non-iconic nobody notices when the writers change its gender or species. Similarly, Warren made a name for herself in the fight for a Consumer Protection agency against some solid villains: the rich bankers popularly blamed for making everybody poor. In the Senate election, however, she’s up against Scott Brown. Difficult to hate or fear because of his seeming moderateness, and occasionally naked and furry, Scott Brown is the Cheetah of political opponents.

Paul Ryan—Ozymandias (Watchmen)

In light of Paul Ryan’s love of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (shared by Cult. Lit. for different reasons), the most obvious Watchmen comparison for the Republican vice-presidential candidate would be Rorschach (or his more explicitly Randian predecessor, The Question). However, Ryan’s story parallels Ozymandias’ arc much more closely. Ryan and Ozymandias are both motivated by obsessions with figures from their early studies. They are also well known for being in peak physical condition and performing amazing feats, such as running sub-three marathons, climbing all the tall mountains, and catching bullets with their bare hands. Ozymandias used this renown to pimp his own exercise program to fund his plans to save the world, and Ryan won’t shut up about P90X. Ozymandias and Ryan share a commitment to plans rejected by their colleagues as too drastic, whether or not they’ll save the world. Even if his colleagues flinch at the outrageous nature of cutting Medicare, Ryan, like Ozymandias, knows the right incentives for a better tomorrow can only be created by subjecting us to the giant, killer, psychic squid of fiscal austerity. We’ll have to wait for election day to find out whether Ryan will match his comic book counterpart in seeing his plan through.

Cultural Literacy and the Law is a humor column written by an anonymous Harvard Law student. The column runs every other Monday.

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