Lighthouse No Good
posted by Dave Hoffman
Prompted by a tip from the civ pro listserv, I just read William Prosser’s wonderful speech, Lighthouse No Good, delivered at Temple Law School in 1948. In Lighthouse, Prosser talks about what it’s like to teach law, and to grow older in the profession. There are some wonderful – unforgettable - lines. Among them:
“On Teaching: At last the day comes when [the professor] confronts his first class. I wish I could convey to anyone who never has sat in that perilous seat the trepidation, the dismay, the feeling of helpless inferiority, which which a new professor looks into all those fresh young faces — younger, that is, by at least five years than he- which are regarding him with such manifest skepticism and disapproval.
On Grading: The examination is given, the great pile of bluebooks is brought into his office, and he attacks them with eager anticipation. It is then that the ghastly truth is borne in upon him, the consternation and the horror, and he finds out just how good a teacher he is. It is then he realizes the full underlying truth in that old lament of the French horn player in the little German band, ‘I blow in it so sweet, and it comes out so sour…’”
“On Students: Students can be almost as stupid as clients, but they are seldom unpleasant to professors, for obvious reasons into which we need not go.
On Professors: All too often [hiring saddles a school] with a well-meaning incompetent , unqualified to teach, to write, to think, or to do anything at all but sit and wear the dignified title of Professor – a title which he shares with every orchestra leader, every bootblack, ever prestidigitator, professional hypnotist, or other charlatan in the land, and which most of us wear with what grace we can.”
But this is just the icing. The cake is a story about how to teach law – how to think about teaching law. Prosser describes the ongoing (in the 1940s!) debate about legal education – of worries on how to measure law student performance, of whether schools were teaching enough (too much?) practical skills, doing enough (too much) interdisciplinary work, being too (not enough?) Socratic. His answer is both dispiriting and (to me anyway) remarkably resonant. No one really knows what they are doing, but we’ll muddle through.
“I think teaching law is rather like herding sheep. You run behind the students and bark at their heels, and head off the ones that start for the hilltops, and after a while, if you create enough commotion, they move down the valley and arrive at a destination without ever knowing how they got there. Of course … whether it’s the right destination is another question, and there is always somebody who wants to argue about that.”
For those who haven’t read the essay, you should, especially if you want to do something other than gnash your teeth at the umpteenth exam answer that reminds you that that you aren’t half the teacher you wished you were. It reminded me that nothing about our current ferment in legal education is new. And back in the day, even exceptionally famous professors worried about recycling jokes.