Politics & Policy

Social Injustice Ate My Homework

Last year’s Harvard Law School graduates.
Harvard law students have been taught to think like spoiled children.

If there were a First Rule of our present penchant for victimhood, it would presumably be that everything unpleasant that happens in the world must, in some way, eventually be about you. Today, the National Law Journal reports that:

The push to delay law school final examinations in light of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases has spread to Harvard Law School, as administrators at Georgetown University Law Center said students could seek delays on a case-by-case basis. Columbia Law School was the first to allow students to ask to postpone their exams.

Those Harvard students have produced an open letter, in which they demand that their examinations be delayed. “Like many across the country,” its authors claim, students “are traumatized” and “visibly distressed” — to the extent that there is now a “palpable anguish looming over campus.” The “national crisis” that has been provoked by the cases of Garner and Brown, they argue, has left them with no choice but to “stand for justice rather than sit and prepare for exams.” And, like their brethren at Columbia, they contend that their “being asked to prepare for and take our exams in this moment” amounts to their “being asked to perform incredible acts of disassociation” — requests, which taken together, have led them “to question our place in this school community and the legal community at large.” The bottom line? That students must be given “the opportunity to reschedule their exams in good faith and at their own discretion.”

Ugly as the Brown and Garner cases were, one can’t help but feel that what constitutes a “National Emergency” or a “personal crisis” is being rather dramatically defined down here — possibly to the vanishing point. In the course of their missive, the vexed students claim that “because this national tragedy implicates the legal system to which we have chosen to dedicate our lives, it presents us with a fundamental crisis of conscience and demands our immediate attention.” This, I’d venture, is an effectively irrefutable claim — and not in the good sense. Rather, it is the Interstate Commerce Clause of dog-ate-my-homework pretexts: an unlimited, self-serving, and infinitely malleable rationale that can be used at any time and for any reason. If our law students are to insist upon special dispensation each and every time the justice system fails to live up to its promise, our exam halls will be empty in perpetuity.

That a new batch of Ivy League lawyers is willingly handicapping itself will presumably inspire few tears in the United States. Nevertheless, we should all be alarmed to learn just how seriously our ostensible proto-elites seem to be taking themselves. Somewhat theatrically, the signatories contend that they have thus far “spent countless hours leveraging our legal educations, and utilizing our platform and privilege as students of this institution.” Really? Because it looks from the outside as if they’re claiming that they’re just too upset to turn up to class today. At best, this seems to be a case of ambitious students using any leverage they have to improve their grades; at worst, it is laziness sold as social justice. Either way, coming from self-acknowledged beneficiaries of “platform and privilege” it must look grotesque to those among us who have jobs.

Worse, perhaps, is the eager embrace of the victim’s pose. From start to finish, the letter’s tone shuttles between that of the vicarious masochist and that of the woe-is-me martyr. Harvard’s student body, we learn, is “traumatized” and “distressed,” and it is sad and disappointed that the college faculty has not agreed to engage in a day of general catharsis. What, one has to wonder, does this say about the sort of elite we are creating? We are talking here, remember, about would-be lawyers, many of whom will go on to work under substantial pressure in essential, delicate, influential areas. Even if we were to presume that the entire class of Harvard Law intends to end up representing corporations or arguing abstract constitutional principle, the news that so many felt unable to take their exams because they were upset by the news should be cause for concern. (Who would want to hire a delicate flower to be his lawyer in a time of crisis?) But, of course, they will not all restrict themselves to matters of high principle. Instead, many of those who are currently wallowing in abject self-indulgence will go on to be defenders, prosecutors, and advocates of reform — people, that is, who will be exposed daily to exactly the sort of cases that they are so vexed by today. Are we to welcome a generation of lawyers that takes a time-out each and every time the world’s blemishes are permitted to intrude upon their feelings?

All in all, the letter suggests that a significant portion of today’s students have noticed that, if they wish to get their own way, they need only to report that they are upset or outraged or traumatized, and then to sit back and wait. Ultimately, the fault here lies with the academy, which has spent the last few decades permitting “I’m offended” to become a reliable means by which debate might be summarily and forcefully shut down. Of course a good number of Harvard’s students expect that the mere mention of their “trauma” will serve as sufficient warrant for indulgence. Of course the letter’s signatories anticipate that any mention of “distress” will be met not with broad, harsh, and profound push-back but with acquiescence. As have so many people of my age, they have become thoroughly accustomed to having their sensibilities treated as if they were valuable in and of themselves. As have so many at the West’s top universities, they have realized that their feelings and opinions are received almost uncritically. To update an old maxim, we might say that to spare the skepticism is to spoil the child. Bluntly? These children are spoiled as hell.

One can only imagine how derisively previous generations would have snorted at today’s. During the Civil War — one of the bloodiest, nastiest, and most disruptive conflicts in the history of the world — a good number of American colleges not only stayed open but kept a regular schedule, too. In almost all cases, perbellum classes were filled with people whose fathers, brothers, friends, and former classmates were being killed, maimed, and, in a few cases, completely disappeared — and in astonishing and unprecedented numbers. The arguments that underpinned and motivated the physical conflict, moreover, were extraordinarily contentious and wildly distracting. How easy do we imagine it was for students to focus when their country was embroiled in a brawl whose outcome would settle the practical meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the future of the American experiment, and the fate of human slavery on the continent?

And yet, despite these hardships, the only thing that proved consistently capable of closing the colleges was the war itself — the vast majority of institutions shuttering their doors because too many of their students had enrolled in the military, because their facilities stood in the line of fire, or because the government had requisitioned their buildings. The same stoic attitude was on display in England during the Blitz, which unpredictable abomination was unable to close Oxford, Cambridge, or any of the other schools that were deemed unlikely to be blown to pieces. (Most of London’s colleges closed, but not all of them. Birkbeck College stayed open even after a German bomber scored a direct hit on the library!)

While at Harvard in 1945, the satirist Tom Lehrer issued a semi-parodic anthem of encouragement for the student body. Having noticed that the university’s existing refrains “had a tendency to be somewhat uncouth, and even violent,” Lehrer thought that it might “be refreshing, to say the least, to find one that was a bit more genteel.” And so, being an enterprising sort, he wrote one himself, offering up a ditty that combined the more traditional enjoinders to “Fight fiercely, Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight!” with salutary reminders to “invite the whole team up for tea” and to “try not to injure” one’s opponents. A modern Lehrer might take a look at the school’s current crop of self-pitying students and conclude, alas, that the opposite correction was in order.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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