The decision by the University of Michigan’s law school to schedule a “post-election self-care” event – involving Play-Doh, Lego and bubble-blowing – to help students cope with the stress of Donald Trump’s victory has led a leading law scholar to accuse US schools of raising a generation of “wuss” lawyers.
Despite the later cancellation of the event featuring Michigan’s “embedded psychologist”, its mere suggestion angered John Banzhaf, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, who said that law students’ becoming more “wussified or wimpy” could have serious implications.
“This is not isolated to law schools. We have the same kind of problems occurring at all universities, all colleges,” he told Times Higher Education. “Also, there is a big difference with dealing with undergraduates, who typically are 18 or 19 years old, away from home for the first time. They are [perhaps] more fragile, more likely to be subject to stress and so on.
“In [law schools’] case, we’re talking about students [who have] gone at least four years [at] undergraduate [level]; some of them have done additional education or have taken time off and worked in the real world. So this is happening with [students] who are typically 23, 24; it’s much more disturbing.”
While society does not “demand that much fortitude” from some academic courses, he added, it is crucial for lawyers in the US, he claimed.
Professor Banzhaf is renowned in the US legal world for his tenacity, especially in high-profile cases against the tobacco industry and McDonald’s. He was a key figure in Morgan Spurlock’s film about McDonald’s, Super Size Me, and is cited in Spurlock’s book for his pugnacious legal techniques. His students have been referred to as “Banzhaf’s Bandits” and his legal activism course is idiomatically known as “Sue the Bastards”.
“We depend on lawyers to stand up to tremendous pressures, to judges who will try to shut them down, very strong opposing counsel, and community pressures if you’re defending an unpopular defendant or cause,” he said. “If they are wusses, if they’re more likely to back down to pressure. The consequences are more serious.”
Professor Banzhaf said this culture was not new, and instances of “wussified” students go back over 10 years. He noted claims by Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor of law at Harvard University, that some colleagues “were not teaching the law of rape because of student pressure”.
“Some of them, because we do depend to some extent on student evaluations, said: ‘I don’t need that pressure, I’m just not going to teach rape.’ If you don’t teach rape, you have a whole generation of students who don’t understand the law of rape, which makes it very difficult for them to go out and prosecute or defend,” he said.
Professor Banzhaf said there are now surveys showing “many students think it’s OK to prohibit speech which might be harmful, upsetting or disturbing”, something he believes goes counter to the key aims of higher education.
“To expose people to unpopular thoughts, the ones that are contrary to the way they grew up, will be disturbing – but that’s the whole point of higher education,” he said. “[Our campuses] should be a bastion and bedrock of protection for free speech.”
Besides the serious practical repercussions, he said, he worried that it could affect academic work on increasing our wider understanding of important societal concerns.
“Law professors tend to do legal research in the areas that we teach. We think that if we do research in area X, it will help us explain and provide real experiences in our classrooms,” he said. “If we’re no longer teaching the law of rape, it’s quite natural that professors who otherwise might be doing research into it will be less likely to do so.”