Phi Beta Cons

Answering Jonah Regarding Christian Schools

This morning Jonah linked to Mickey Kaus’s critique of Paul Krugman’s typically hysterical screed against allegedly theocratic incompetents streaming into the Bush administration from Christian colleges and professional schools.  Before I respond to Jonah, a word about my experience.  I’m a graduate of a very conservative Christian college and a prestigious secular law school.  I taught for two years at Cornell Law School, and I served as a partner in a large law firm.  I currently work at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian public interest law firm, and I participate in our Blackstone Legal Fellowship, which draws approximately 100 law students every year for essentially a third (summer) semester of law school.  During that summer they learn — among other things — biblical and natural law principles and are (gasp) encouraged to apply those principles in the secular workplace and within government.  We get students from Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, from the major state schools, and from Christian law schools like Regent.  I’m also hip-deep in 2008 presidential politics.  If there’s one thing I’ve got (and it may be all I’ve got), it’s experience as a “Christian right” lawyer in a variety of settings.  A few observations:

1.  Every law school in America (including tier 4 schools) has outstanding students, and every law school has more than its share of future underperforming incompetents.  The difference between the top and bottom law schools is not necessarily the talent at the top, but the depth of the talent.  A middle of the class lawyer at an Ivy League law school could very well be a brilliant and outstanding future litigator, but there is less likelihood of the same outcome for a middle of the class student at a lower tier school.
2.  It is just false to believe that any student — if given the chance — would go to Harvard, Yale, or one of the other top schools.  I have seen (and interviewed) individuals from lower tier schools who had many options but chose to pass up the expensive elite education for the lesser glory of a state school or Christian school.  Many top Christian students choose Christian schools because they support the school’s mission.  Other top students choose lower-ranked schools because they tend to be (significantly) less expensive.  Not every person thinks a diploma is worth $150,000 of debt at age 25.  I’m still paying for law school, and I graduated 13 years ago.
3.  Credentials-worship often causes employers to skip over superior job candidates in favor of the inferior candidate with the shiny degree.  I can honestly say that there are young lawyers from Regent who are far better attorneys than some Harvard, Yale, and Stanford grads.  There are many characteristics of outstanding lawyers beyond academic accomplishment: integrity, charisma, wisdom, and work ethic are also vitally important.  Believe me, there are some top-of-the-class graduates of Harvard Law School that I wouldn’t want within five miles of a jury.
4.  Christian law schools certainly have missionary zeal, but — and this is vitally important to understand — so do the major secular law schools.  The “social justice” teaching at these schools is intense, and the professors often pour more time and effort into creating little leftist activists than they do into actually teaching their subjects. 
5.  The broader conservative movement (including within government) is waking up to the reality that one way to break the leftist monopoly on elite education is to break their (former) stranglehold on the best jobs in government and the private sector.
Are there scary, incompetent, and overly-ideological graduates of Christian law schools?  Of course.  Are there scary, incompetent, and overly-ideological graduates of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford?  You betcha — and they are perhaps more dangerous because too many people are in awe of their degree and bestow on them (undeserved) intellectual and moral authority.  The problem I have with the Krugman critique or even with some fellow Christian commenters is two-fold: First, the use of a school’s academic reputation as a stand-in for evaluating individual merit (for example, the individual who said that Regent grads “may be brilliant but probably aren’t” should know the same statement applies to Harvard grads) is just lazy and all too often inaccurate.  Second, it is just flat-out wrong to believe that Christian schools like Regent are any more mission-focused than virtually every major secular law school in America.  Secular law schools have distinct points of view on abortion, same-sex marriage, the War on Terror, economics, so-called “social justice,” etc.  And — as I said before — there is no doubt that the faculty spends much of its time ensuring that students will parrot the school’s approved view when their students enter the workforce.
I’m sure that the Bush administration has hired individuals who are more qualified to be ideological warriors than good lawyers.  But then so has the Democratic establishment (including the previous Democratic administration) — it’s just that the Democratic lawyers may have a fancier degree. 
UPDATE:  Many thanks to Jonah for responding to my post.  I should have been more clear that I was making general comments on the issue, not trying to refute anything Jonah said.  My problem is with the MSM types like Krugman who tend to view a degree from a school like Regent as evidence of incompetence and are also utterly blind to the ideological zeal of their favored institutions. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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