For me, the biggest negative to being a law school professor is grading exams.  After the sixth exam, it’s just no fun.  Plus, I have to carefully size up each student’s performance.  And that inevitably leads to some students being disappointed with my evaluation.  Certain of these students end up in my office wanting to discuss the outcome.  Their reactions tell it all.  These students fall into four groups.

The first group is the “Elitists.”  An elitist just wants to voice an objection, advise me that he or she always receives a top grade, and proclaim that my evaluation must therefore be defective.  There is little interest in the details that lead to the disappointing grade.  I take comfort in knowing that most of these elitists will fit well into many law firms.

The second group is the “Stone Throwers.”   This group seeks to disavow any personal responsibility by assigning blame to other persons or things.   Fairness is a popular theme with stone throwers.  Often, I am the target, the claim being that I expected too much or that my class discussions were too complicated because they assumed that students would actually prepare for class.  But there have been many targets over the years – the exam itself, the incomprehensible tax textbook, the actions of other students, problems at home, the competitive law school environment, and so on.  Stone throwers have a tendency to play fast and loose with the truth to make their case.  I usually struggle to understand what a stone thrower actually wants from me, but I take comfort in knowing that many of them might end up becoming tough litigators.

The third group is the “Dreamers.”  They do not claim any elite status, nor do they throw stones.  They just wish things were different – that they could have a better grade.  They want to commiserate and express a desire, with the hope that I will do something to help the situation.   They have absolutely no interest in digging into the details of their particular exam.  I worry about how members of this group will fit into the practice of law.  They may be better off doing something where details are a tad less important.  Like washing cars.

The last group is the “Activists.”  This is my favorite group, and I am pleased that most of my students fall into this group.  The activist views the disappointing grade as a wakeup call, a clear sign that something important is wrong.  There is a sense of urgency to get to the truth, the details that explain the misfortune.  The goal is not to change the grade or to say something to me that somehow makes it easier  to accept the grade.  The goal of the effort is to eliminate the root cause of the grade – the associated ignorance or misunderstanding of the relevant substantive material.  So the details become the name of the game.  The interchange with the activist becomes a positive learning experience that advances the whole educational process.  I take comfort in knowing that most activists will become very good lawyers.

Our country received an unbelievably horrible grade last Friday night.  It’s a grade that was unthinkable just a few months ago.  When Treasury Secretary Geithner  was specifically asked just last April whether there was any risk of a downgrade to the United State’s AAA bond rating, he proclaimed, as a fact, that there was no such risk.  But now it has happened.

How could a person in Geithner’s position have been so wrong?  Does he not understand the numbers?  Does he not understand that the United States has aggressively pursued for the last two years an agenda that everyone claims is unsustainable by any standard?  Or that the United States has not even had a budget for over two years?  Or that those who are responsible for the government’s agenda have never offered any plan or even a plausible scenario as to how our nation can financially survive long-term with the current agenda?  Given the hard facts, the Standard & Poor’s downgrade decision, while disappointing, is understandable.

But at this juncture, what’s most important is the reaction to the lousy grade.  As with my disappointed students, the reaction tells it all.  It took our President nearly three days to comment on the downgrade.  When he did, there were none of the wonderful attributes of an activist.  There was no real sense of urgency, no wake-up call mentality, no compelling desire to tackle the root cause of the downgrade or the details that got us into this mess.  There was just more of the same useless political rhetoric that is designed to obscure the real issues and pander to the ignorance of all those who have no clue.   As I watched the speech, all I saw was an elitist with strong dreamer tendencies, a fierce determination to duck responsibility by throwing stones, and a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth.

August 11, 2011