Paternalism and Compulsory Attendance
posted by Dave Hoffman
Should professors force law students to come to class?
It’s a species of the pedagogy/paternalism debate that has otherwise been batted around in the banning laptops and mandating preparation kerfuffles. And yet, requiring attendance is different. It is much harder to see how missing class, unlike using a laptop or being unprepared, produces negative externalities for the remaining students. After all, it only takes only one student surfing the web to distract a whole row of her colleagues, but a student who isn’t there really isn’t a problem. So long as the remaining students are engaged they will each probably get marginally better educational experiences if their classmate- who would otherwise be compelled to virtue, and probably indifference – is instead permitted to stay home.
The reasons ordinarily adduced to require attendance don’t stand up to sustained scrutiny:
1. Coming to Class Improves Student Grades: As Seattle Law Prof. Rafael Pardo pointed out here last year, there is minimal support for the baseline empirical intuition supporting a paternalistic attendance policy: present students do only marginally better on final exams. Indeed, apocraphal data (!) are to the contrary. It has been long rumored that many of the outlines on reserve in Gannett House have, as their first page, a photograph with a comment: “This is X. S/he is the Professor in this course.”
2. Coming to Class Embodies Professionalism: The problem here is if lawyers should not be measured simply for showing up, law students shouldn’t either.
3. It Prevents Students From Being Engaged in Other Pursuits, Like Making Money, and Thus Increases the Effective Cost of Legal Education. Ok, this isn’t a defense of the current system, but can you explain the current ABA stance in any other way? Unlike the laptop policy, or preparation, the ABA actually requires law schools to make attendance mandatory, through regulation 304-d. Thus, teachers (like those at Harvard, at least when I was there) – who do not enforce any attendance requirements put the school potentially in danger of ABA sanctions. Most law professors probably would like to follow HLS’ model, not only to avoid charges of hypocrisy, but because they have grown less enchanted by a paternalistic pedagogy the more they’ve taught. But, being risk-averse rule-followers, they hold their noses and enforce strict attendance policies.
Law school teaching is premised on the idea that our students are adults, able to self-motivate and generate a great deal of the learning themselves, or in combination with their study groups. This orientation justifies the Socratic method’s open-ended character, and is strongly in tension with paternalistic educational policies in the absence of negative externalities.
RESOLVED, THEREFORE: Regulation 304-d should be eliminated.