Is Harvard Law School — that liberal Utopia and bastion of political correctness — sexist? A group of feminist students and alumni thinks so. In a short film available online, a group calling itself the “Shatter the Ceiling” coalition claims that Harvard Law’s competitive climate is “hostile to women.”
“Hostile?” Maybe. But sexist or hostile to women, in particular? Please. Make no mistake, law school is hard. Top law schools can be pressure-cookers. Among the elite law schools, Harvard has always had a reputation as one of the most cut-throat (particularly as compared to its kinder and gentler competitor, Yale).
When I was at HLS in the early 1990s, enormous classes and campus political polarization contributed to a feeling of alienation among male and female students alike. Students were intellectually challenged, but unhappy.
Then came Dean Elena Kagan (now on the U.S. Supreme Court), and much of what made Harvard Law so miserable began to change. Kagan reduced class size, modernized the curriculum, and dramatically upgraded the infrastructure. Most important, she personally hosted numerous community-building events and made scholars and students of all political perspectives feel welcome. Students were happier. But, although Kagan did much to improve morale, she did not sacrifice rigor. HLS remains a grind. It probably always will be.
Enter “Shatter the Ceiling” and its charges that HLS oppresses women. The discrimination, they argue, is systemic. As proof, they point to crude statistical data showing that, in 2012, only 30 percent of Harvard’s magna cum laude graduates and only 20 percent of students selected for the prestigious Harvard Law Review were women.
So, to what should we attribute these disparities? Why, to the hallways themselves! Yes, those portrait-lined hallways, featuring photos of present and former HLS professors (the majority of whom have been male), apparently “silence” female law students.
Wow. Who knew that some of the brightest and most articulate women in the country could be “silenced” by portraits of Alan Dershowitz and Stephen Breyer?
But it is not just portraits that purportedly intimidate females at HLS. “Shatter the Ceiling” claims that the “Socratic method” itself creates gender disparities. Made famous by “The Paper Chase,”the Socratic method is a form of teaching in which professors play “devil’s advocate” by calling on students at random to defend a particular position. It is regarded by many as the best way to stimulate critical thinking and ensure that students come to class well-prepared.
The master of this approach was professor Phillip Areeda. Areeda, who died in 1995, was both feared andrevered by students, who dreaded his relentless and pointed questioning, but who finished the year grateful that Areeda had taught them to “think like a lawyer.”
“Shatter the Ceiling” members claim, however, that the Socratic method embodies a “male pedagogical style.” Indeed, law student Jessica Jensen tells the Harvard Crimson that it is “the worst thing in the world.” Never mind that fewer than half of Harvard Law courses are taught using the Socratic method anymore. Ms Jensen, nevertheless, feels oppressed by those that are because they “force you to talk like a man.”
Ms Jensen, apparently, believes that critical thinking and the ability to defend one’s position publicly are “male” skills. Let’s hope she never has to argue a case in court or present to a board of directors. And let’s pray she never has to testify before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee. Because, if she does, she will find herself grilled by a senator who was, until recently, one of the most vigorous and skilled practitioners of the Socratic method at Harvard.
Her name? Elizabeth Warren. How’s that for sexism?