October 20, 2010


A word needs to be said about the mocking laughter that instantly erupted from the law students in the audience. Presumably, that sound meant we are smart and you are dumb. Where did they learn to treat a guest at their law school — Widener Law School — with such disrespect? They hooted O’Donnell down, and she never got a chance to explain her point. What does that say about the climate for debate in law schools? Not only did they feel energized to squelch the guest they politically opposed, but they felt sure of their own understanding of the law.

I’ve been studying law myself since 1978, and I still puzzle over things and try to work my way through problems. If a speaker at my school makes a statement that sounds outlandish to me — me with 32 years of studying law — I may display a puzzled expression or a smile, but I hear the person out and entertain the possibility that he has a point and that even if the point is wrong, I will have learned some new perspective on the ways of being wrong or how another human being’s mind works. I try to create that atmosphere in the classroom.

What is the atmosphere at Widener? Is there no intellectual curiosity? No love of debate? No grasp of how complex constitutional law problems can be?

Well, we can only judge by what we’ve seen. Meanwhile, Cornell lawprof William Jacobson comments: “A literal reading of O’Donnell’s comments reflects that she was correct, but of course, the press and the blogosphere don’t want a literal reading, they want a living, breathing reading which comports with their preconceived notions.”

The Constitution stands for things that are good. The things that we want are good. Therefore, the Constitution stands for what we want. QED. How can those dumb wingnuts not understand this simple logic?

Meanwhile, I agree that the O’Donnell focus is a deliberate distraction. But I also think it’s important to use this opportunity — like the Sarah Palin “1773” brouhaha — to point out that the credentialed gentry class isn’t nearly as smart, and certainly isn’t as well-educated, as it thinks it is. Because, you know, it isn’t.

Perhaps Widener law students can’t be expected to understand constitutional doctrine like Wisconsin or Cornell law professors. But they can be expected to avoid showing their ignorance through ill-mannered displays. One of the underappreciated virtues of good manners is that they help you to avoid making an ass of yourself when you are not as smart as you think you are.

UPDATE: Not so smart: WaPo/AP Caught Revising the O’Donnell Story Without Issuing a Correction. “I ran a document comparison in word between the original text and every paragraph is completely rewritten.”

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