Archive for June 30th, 2008

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Followup to Humanities and Law

June 30, 2008

In response to a comment left by Jeremy on last week’s “The Humanities and the Future of Law” post, I totally forgot to link my source. Sorry about that. Here’s the complete list 1-29.

A person on another blog, a lawyer who, presumably, was a Philosophy major, is arguing something like what Jeremy is arguing here. He thinks success on the LSAT based on undergraduate major is related to 1) self-selection (smarter people choose harder majors) and 2) intellectual rigor.

I have my problems with the idea of “intellectual rigor.” As I said elsewhere about Leiter’s post, I started off in Biology and I have a hard time thinking about it being less intellectually rigorous than Literature (where I ended up). Biology, for one thing, entails a great deal of advanced math. For another, like most fields, there are a substantial amount of research papers written that must be read, understood, and argued with. But Biology came in 10 to English’s 9, a point that leads me to appreciate Jeremy’s assessment a little more than Leiter’s because it doesn’t use the broader concept of intellectual rigor,but a more specific appeal to critical thinking.

Ultimately though I’m not sure how accurate that is either. Certainly the vocational trades–at the bottom of the list–are prone to eschewing theory in favor of more hands-on training. The bottom eight fields are:

  • Management
  • Sociology/Social Work
  • Business Administration
  • Health Profession
  • Education
  • No Major given
  • Prelaw
  • Criminology

Above that are Marketing/Real Estate, #20 and Communications/Arts, #19. Political Science, at #18 mirrors the weighted mean of all scores, so that pretty much divides the list in half for us. We can probably argue that Sociology is pulled down by being included with Social Work, the latter being more vocational. But it doesn’t quite explain why Liberal Arts is below Marketing/Real Estate, or, for that matter, why Political Science is below Accounting.

It doesn’t explain why Finance is above Psychology or how Foreign Languages lost to Engineering (while neither includes much critical thinking of the type implied here, foreign languages with their emphasis on history, linguistics, and literature, arguably entails more.)

The real problem with using a chart like this to describe things like “success on the LSAT” is that it becomes a prescription which doesn’t actually work. It is natural to assume that certain majors prepare you for the LSAT, and some probably do, a little bit. But unlike Leiter I think self-selection is the more important variable here.

Liberal Arts is a great major. Unfortunately a lot of people who wind up there are the students who–well—wound up there. They didn’t focus their goals and instead took a lot of classes in a variety of Liberal Arts disciplines and suddenly four years had gone by and they needed to go get a job. They looked at their transcripts and asked their advisers what degree they were closest too. Certainly that is not the story of all of them or even most of them.  A lot of schools have very rigorous, planned Liberal Arts coursework that one is not likely to “slip” into. I guess in the case of Liberal Arts, the latter set of majors is getting pulled down by being lumped with their fellows in the former category.

Contrariwise, engineering is a vocational major but a very difficult one. At the end of their undergraduate training not every engineer is equipped to be a lawyer, and, for that matter, a lot of people who go into Engineering want to be engineers–not lawyers. However, with the dramatic rise in salaries for patent lawyers, a certain amount of engineers got their engineering degree purposefully to become lawyers later. That kind of self-selection might explain why Engineering bucks the trend of vocational degrees that do more poorly on the LSAT and why Liberal Arts doesn’t live up to the success of its more specialized colleagues.

It would be interesting to see the follow-up to this article.  The various undergraduate majors that are accepted/enter law school–and then the various undergraduates who graduate law school–and even the various undergraduates who take/pass the bar.

To me the bottom line here is that a list like this is interesting because of what it reveals about the kind of people that go into the various majors, not because it’s a necessarily good predictor of LSAT success. That is, any kid who chooses a major because he thinks it will lead him to a better LSAT score is likely to do better on the LSAT because he’s that type of kid, not because the undergraduate training is particularly suited for it.

None of this is to say that Jeremy’s analysis is wrong. If any kind of training prepares you for the LSAT at all, it’s the sort of argument analysis one finds in most of the liberal arts classes. That of course, doesn’t explain why the math folks came in at #1, but it does explain most of the rest of the list in a general way. The idea of training in critical thinking (or intellectual rigor) seems to provide a broad sorting factor, the particular orders are then determined by self-selection…and chance. If it was just either of the first two, we could assume that this list would retain this order year after year, which it almost certainly does not.

Economics came in third by the way.

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