Thursday, March 3, 2011

Higher Education = Buying Connections (if only!)

This is a post that is not really non-trad-specific, but bears discussion all the same.

Back in say, oh, the 16th century, the nobility ran the show, and the peasants did all the hoeing and picking.

Did the best and the brightest of the peasantry go to university? No. You couldn’t leave the confines of your lord’s estate, let alone think about improving your station in life. Neither did you want to, supposedly – God had ordained all things, from King to Pauper, and you accepted your station in life with grace and perseverance.

While everyone has difficulties to overcome in this vale of tears, let’s be honest: as the immortal Mel Brooks said, “It’s good to be the King.”

It was the sons of nobility that went to university. In between partying and sowing wild oats, they learned a thing or two before assuming their Dukedom, Earlship, or other letters patent. Ostensibly it made them better able to fulfill their role, or at least keep them occupied until messy succession issues were worked out.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and we still don’t have education as a fundamental right. We do, however, at least preach that an educated society is the most desirable society. We mandate a public school education as a minimum, and subsequently turn people loose to seek their fortunes. Some career paths require accredited programs from universities that specialize in said career path. All you have to do is get in, use your connections, and a lucrative career with service to society is all yours.

If you are the son of a senator (SPQR-variety or otherwise), for example, it’s ostensibly easier to get into an elite university and an elite career. Family money and connections go a long way.

But what if, like most peasants, you have no connections and no family money? What if the government officials that oversaw the leaking sieves that are state governmental budgets ended up firing all your teachers, leaving you with a sub-standard education? Simple – you “buy” your connections by taking out loans and graduating from university.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, nice shootin’, Tex! That’s a rather harsh indictment of higher education, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see what bitter bias you lather on law school in particular, you legal loser!”

Am I wrong? Why, then, do people care what university they get into? Why are children subjected to flash cards and educational tapes while in the womb? Why all this talk of rankings overall? Why are there first-tier / second-tier / TTT law schools in particular? Why is USN&WR changing its ranking system yet again?

The rationale for rankings is that certain universities are the “go to” institutions for a given field. However, there is also the mythology of “it shouldn’t matter where you go, the point is to go.” Education is democratizing, correct? Knowledge is power, correct? And, with law school in particular, the books are all the same, right? It should all be about the “love of learning” and “passion for the vocation”, not mere financial gain or employment opportunities afterward.

Until, as a student, it becomes time to pay the piper his $100k+. At that point, you care very much where you went, how respected the degree is, and who your alumni are and what strings they can pull. It becomes critical that the reputation and credentials of the school demonstrate that you are a viable, valuable candidate. In other words, for your “connections” to place you in a job.

If you have wealth and connections already, there is no need to worry. Higher Education is merely the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, nothing more. Write a check for your student loans and be on your way. Also, cut another nice donation check to the institution that “opened doors” for you so much – just make sure they put your name on the new building addition or dormitory when it’s built.

For those without connections, this is where the prestige of the school allegedly steps in to fill the vacuum. Its respect in the marketplace. The rigors of its academic program. The success of its graduates. “See, Large Fancy Institution, you too want the high-caliber individuals from our program!”

To be fair, while the various Offices of Career Services cannot manufacture jobs out of whole cloth, neither can they help anyone who is not top of the class – there has to be something to barter with. The truth is that even the most respected program only goes so far…what matters is who you know and what business that brings to the table.

Law is, after all…well…law. Other than “prestigious” professors and “well-respected” programs, there is not a lot of difference between accredited program “A” and accredited program “W” except that “A” is higher up the alphabet than “W”. “A” and “W” are both letters, after all (and make a good root beer). Is “A” inherently more valuable than “W”? You wouldn’t think so at face value. They both have classrooms, libraries, and fax machines, after all.

Oh, but it matters. Ye shall not mingle the progeny of nobility with the plebeians, nor allow the plebeians to occupy a noble’s spot. The bottom line: if you must go to law school, get into the best program, period. Otherwise, do not go.

Sadly, these days even the best programs are still no guarantee, but if you are going to spend the money, spend it well. And make sure your have the support of the King and the Lord Privy Seal long before you go.

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