Some Thoughts on My Colossal Ignorance

I suspect that I am destined to spend my life feeling inferior to those with Ph.D’s. The summer after my junior year in college, I worked for a law professor and decided that he had about the coolest job in the world. I have been working toward an overpaid tenured sinecure at a law school ever since. One of the disadvantages of pursuing the law is that I am more or less condemned to perpetual dilettantism, constantly dabbling in the disciplines of others. I try to overcome these nagging insecurities by reading books, but I find that this is not working. I am still basically ignorant about pretty much everything. And it looks as though this condition is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

I confess that one of the lures of Mormon studies is that it really is a fairly manageable field. The history is not too long and all of the “major and important books” can fit more or less on a single book shelf. Sheesh. You can read the bibliographic essay at the end of James Allen and Glen Leonard’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints and you will have a basic sense of the content of about 80 percent of everything that has been written. Compare this with the study of law: “Begin with the Code of Hammurabi. Work forward to Moses, Solon, Cicero and Justinian. Master seven hundred years of common law development. Move on to the Code of Federal Regulations. Read five millenia of commentary on the above.”

However, even this promise of easy expertise proves false. The fact of the matter is that a huge amount of work remains to be done a in Mormon studies. For example, you can count serious philosophical treatments on Mormon theology on the fingers of one hand, and some of them are not all that good. There have been, as near as I can tell, exactly two books written on law and Mormonism, both of which are historical rather than jurisprudential. In other words, the relatively manageable corpus of Mormon studies is not a pointer toward easy erudition and knowledge. Rather, it is a monument to our basic ignorance of Mormonism and our essential failure, hitherto, to work rigorously out the implications of what we believe and do.

At this point, of course, we pull out Socrates and console ourselves with intellectual bromides about how the man who recognizes his own ignorance is truly the wisest man of all. On most days, however, I just think that I don’t know anything.

66 comments for “Some Thoughts on My Colossal Ignorance

  1. July 26, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Nate, getting a Ph.D. wouldn’t change that. The day I received my degree I had a revelation: this means that many of the Ph.D.’s I know are no smarter than I am. That was a frightening thought. Most of us spend our time frightened that we will be found out.

  2. john fowles
    July 26, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Nate, that’s no reason to feel inferior to Ph.D.s, at least not those in non-scientific fields. Philosophy might be a diferent story, but believe me Ph.D.s in literature or other fields in the Humanities might be well and widely read (or they might not, if they are the quintessential Fachidioten), but that doesn’t mean they are actually saying anything when they display that knowledge. You have to take a close look at what they publish to find its value.

    That is why, even though I decided for law rather than a Ph.D. in German and Comparative Literature, I still wonder if I shouldn’t have chosen academia after all. Lawyers need to actually say something when they write–something of value to the client who is paying them for their professional opinion. What’s worse, lawyers need to be right when they write, or at least be able to persuade others that they are right, whereas a Ph.D. in literature or the humanities can say whatever he or she wants–it doesn’t matter if it is right (in fact those fields of knowledge have eliminated the possibility that anything is right at all over anything else through the myriad postmodern ideologies who nonetheless share one absolute: there is no right, no foundation, no connecting principles). Persuasiveness is still a virtue for a Ph.D. in such fields, I suppose, but only to the extent that you can persuade the editorial board of some journal or another or the organizers of some conference or other to accept your article or idea for publication.

    But teaching is where Ph.D.s are truly to be envied. And you can have that as a law professor. So it looks to me like you have made very rational decisions in aiming to be a law professor rather than a Ph.D. in the humanities, or history for that matter. Of course, you can still do an SJD or a Ph.D. in preparation for your position as a law professor, and nothing is preventing you from becoming as widely read as any lit crit or history professor. Professor Gedicks is a good example of that.

    This post might seem very pejorative towards Ph.D.s in these named fields, and I apologize to all Ph.D. candidates and Ph.D.s out there. Of course this is exaggerated and I am sure that your contributions to knowledge in your fields is not to be ignored.

  3. July 26, 2004 at 1:41 pm


    with the bar looming ahead of you, I’ll bet you are especially wishing now that you were in a Ph.D. program somewhere, anywhere else! Good luck!

  4. July 26, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    John Fowles, may I take a small exception and suggest that your take on postmodernism may describe many in literature departments today–I can’t claim to know well whether that is true–but the claim that postmodernism doesn’t believe there is a right is simply wrong. I’ve made a nuisance of myself sounding that note over and over again, but I think it needs to be said.

    If you’re interested in my take on the issue, you may find this, this or this readable and useful.

  5. john fowles
    July 26, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks Jim! This is great. I won’t read them this week though because they might make me ditch the bar and jump back into a Ph.D. program.

  6. john fowles
    July 26, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    I also perhaps want to retreat a little on my comment above as far as it applies to the discipline of history. History seems less susceptible to some of the ills that plague literature and the humanities (or course they can still creep in, even in history).

  7. July 26, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    Finish your bar exams, for sure. We need literate, thoughtful people like you (and Nate and Kaimi and Matt and Greg and Gordon and . . .) in the law.

  8. Rob
    July 26, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    ” I am still basically ignorant about pretty much everything.”

    While nobody can know everything, I think the value of a broad familiarization with many topics and areas of study is invaluable. But you don’t get that with a PhD. PhDs often know one tiny little thing very well, and often don’t have a good idea of how that little thing fits in with everyting else.

    I think as LDS, we are commanded to learn a lot about many things–everything over, on, and under the earth, the working of nations, wars, etc. But for a purpose–to help build Zion. For that kind of work, we will need experts in all kinds of fields, but we also need leaders who know the values of those fields–and some of their limitations.

    One of my greatest disappointments with many online discussions, is that many participants don’t seem to want education beyond their field, and are more likely to accept their traditional understandings of things rather than serious social or physical science explanations. Nate, I’m glad you want to know lots of other things, and would say don’t worry about the PhD, but do read as widely as you can. Take your interests as far as you can, look for connections, and always seek for that synthesis of knowledge that unites different ideas and works towards creating a Zion society.

    BTW, for full disclosure, I’m getting a PhD in geography because everything over, on, and under the earth is fair game for study, as are all social and physical sciences. That means I’ve read some in almost every field, and I’m always trying to connect other fields of inquiry with my own projects. That makes me prejudiced in favor of wide reading and suspicious of too narrow understandings, both academic and popular.

  9. Nate Oman
    July 26, 2004 at 3:12 pm

    Good luck to any an all who face the bar exam this week. I fondly remember cramming for the bar and developing ulcers about it. I took it in Virginia, where law and equity are not yet merged and you have to learn all sorts of insanely arcane garbage about bills of equity and chancery procedure. I happily confess that I don’t remember a thing that I learned with the exception of the fact that Virginia does not recognize promissory estoppel and follows the Restatement First of Conflicts.

  10. July 26, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    I think there is an interesting nexus emerging though between some legal practitioners and other fields where the so-called “perpetual dilettantism” is less apparent. For instance, take my good friend’s brother, Stanford Law Grad and LDS member, Matt Asay, who is using his legal training to monetize open source code. The subject is beginning to take upon itself a sort of disciplinary subset within the IT world.

    I can definitely relate though to “dabbing” in disciplines of others. I wonder if the answer to “perpetual dilettantism” is creative specialization. Is that possible within the law? Anyone out there ever pursue or consider pursuing a Ph.D. after receiving a J.D.?

    Regarding the bar, in PA and NY, you actually have the option of taking NJ as well, which adds a whole extra day to the bar. Not fun!

  11. Ben S.
    July 26, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    If Nate Oman is colossally ignorant, what does that make the rest of us? :)

    I’ve started to understand that people hide behind their degrees. PhD’s aren’t smarter than anyone else, just gluttons for more punishment. I think there are plenty of PhD’s who don’t know much at all, and those who do know a narrow slice of their own field.
    I wish my program were broader. At the end of the day, I don’t want to read more…

  12. Kaimi
    July 26, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    Who was the writer that another writer later said of him (and I’ve forgotten who both of them are),

    “He went into the library and read it.”

    That would be very fun. To go into the library and read it.

    Of course, then my wife would divorce me, so it might not be so fun after all.

  13. July 26, 2004 at 7:41 pm

    Perhaps it was just my particular program, but I found comparative literature to be a freeing process. No longer constrained by national boundaries, I could range across literatures, languages, theories and practices. While comp lit may have its roots in elitist practices of reading [that is the attempt to circumscribe all world literatures in order to prove our common humanity — a response to the horrors of WWII], I found it to be humbling. So much to read, yes. But also so much beauty that I’ll never fully understand because I’m not part of the audience for which a particular work was written.

    Everybody should be a comparatist.

    Oh yeah and — word up on Jim’s postmodernism links.

  14. john fowles
    July 26, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    William wrote: So much to read, yes. But also so much beauty that I’ll never fully understand because I’m not part of the audience for which a particular work was written. I actually agree with you about the entirety of your post. It doesn’t really speak at all against what I was complaining about in my earlier post. Also remember that my post was in the context of examining Nate’s decision to pursue law instead of a PhD in a literature or humanities related subject area. Law is just as academic and, I was arguing, much more useful in the wider, everyday world where people are mired down in the muck of human and social relationships. Comparative literature (as much as I truly do love the field) is more of an ivory tower approach to these problems. Yes, it expands our minds and understanding of peoples, languages, cultures, and many other things (also of beauty, meaning, form, and emotion), but it won’t make the world go around, as law does.

    One of my ambitions is to take my legal training, with all of its very own academic nuances (I know many who switched from academia to law and most of them agree that studying law has positively influenced their approach in writing), and to cross back over into comparative literature. I have a stack of projects on my desk just waiting–if I ever get the time. . . .

  15. Jonathan Green
    July 27, 2004 at 12:25 am

    I’ve had a Ph.D. (in German) for just over a year, and I still think a Ph.D. is a nifty thing to have. Now that you understand my perspective, let me point out:

    1. The point of a Ph.D. is not reading broadly in your chosen field. That’s what an M.A. is for. A Ph.D., among other things, teaches you how to conduct original research in your field. In earning a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation, I learned how knowledge is created in the humanities, and I helped create one small bit of it. I can’t speak for other fields, but earning a Ph.D. is not an optional step in learning to do serious research in German studies.

    2. Due in part to point #1, a Ph.D. is one of the minimal requirements for being part of the conversation in many fields. If you don’t have a Ph.D. in German, then I can dismiss what you think about the field, or the prevalence of postmodernism in it, or your interpretation of the Nibelungenlied, with a wave of the hand if I want to. If you do have a Ph.D., then I have to take you seriously. (I make exceptions for enrolled graduate students making progress towards their degree.)

    So by pursuing a law degree, one is choosing not to be part of the serious conversations about literature. My Ph.D. in German means that my legal opinions are not worth the electrons they’re transmitted by. That’s what professional specialization means. You make your choice and live with it (until you decide that there’s more to life than law and go back to grad school, or until the adjunct teaching job stops paying the bills and you go back to law school). There are lots of good reasons not to get a Ph.D., including very compelling economic concerns—trust me on this one. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that a J.D. or an MBA plus reading lots of literature gets you the same thing as a Ph.D., but without the poverty.

  16. July 27, 2004 at 8:52 am

    Jonathan Green defends the Ph.D.! Well, someone has to.

    I’m a professor with a Ph.D., and on one level or another I’ve wanted to be a such since I was quite young. I can’t seriously imagine myself doing or being anything outside of the academy. Naturally, therefore, I feel some obligation to defend system I’m a part of, the superstructure of which earning a Ph.D. is a central element. But only some obligation. There are too many flaws in this system–one which I love and which I’ve committed myself (and my family) to–too many ways in which it is out-of-joint with the times, for me whole-heartedly endorse it. So let me elaborate and qualify one of Jonathan’s points.

    “A Ph.D., among other things, teaches you how to conduct original research in your field. In earning a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation, I learned how knowledge is created in the humanities, and I helped create one small bit of it.”

    True, anyone who earns a Ph.D. from a reputable institution has learned the rules and jargon by which knowledge in a particular area of inquiry is generated, appropriated and transmitted. But as the number of persons pursuing Ph.D.s–and the number of institutions scrambling to either attain or hold onto that “reputable” status–have dramatically increased over the last 30-40 years, the “knowledge” produced has increasingly been thrust into higher and more isolated levels of abstraction. “Theory,” broadly constituted, has infected (and poisoned) most Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences…so much so that it is no longer at all surprising to most people that your average Ph.D. cannot effectively explain to a wider audience (even a highly educated audience of fellow Ph.D.s in one’s own discipline) what they do or why they are doing it. This can easily be overstated; obviously there are plenty of philosophers and political theorists and Germanists out there that are still ready actual texts, and still pondering “real” (that is, not self-generated) problems in their fields. Still, the pressure to keep discovering “new” knowledge, to satisfy the higher education machine, has pushed the focus of a great many Ph.D.s in directions so deeply insular and baroque that the classic idea of specialized “research” barely applies any longer.

    As Jonathan’s concluding comments make clear, there is a kind of elitism inherent in the way being and earning a Ph.D. is conceived. I don’t see how that can possibly be avoided: “higher” education, and the role of the Ph.D. in such, cannot by definition be a process of knowledge acquisition and communication that just anybody, no matter how well-read, can do. But given that in the decades since, say, Jim earned his Ph.D., higher education has ran (for very legitimate reasons, I should add) far away from the social assumptions and implications of such elitism, I’m not sure how the contemporary Ph.D. could avoid being a rather debased creature, and thus consequently something of rather less worth than those of us who have one were socialized by our programs to believe.

  17. July 27, 2004 at 9:38 am

    Whoops, sorry; messed up on the italics there. And yes, to those who are wondering: this has everything to do with the difficulty today’s Ph.D.s have in securing permanent employment. Well, maybe not everything, but it’s mostly all of a piece.

  18. john fowles
    July 27, 2004 at 9:53 am

    Jonathan, good point. I’ll refrain from discussing German lit with you.

    Russell: I liked your words: “Theory,” broadly constituted, has infected (and poisoned) most Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences…so much so that it is no longer at all surprising to most people that your average Ph.D. cannot effectively explain to a wider audience (even a highly educated audience of fellow Ph.D.s in one’s own discipline) what they do or why they are doing it. That articulates a lot better what I was trying to express than I did.

  19. July 27, 2004 at 11:23 am

    I could not disagree with Jonathan Green more.

    Has Jonathan Green ever had the opportunity to converse with Jack Welch? Or others like him? Professor Welch has no Ph.D., but he has a great knowledge of many literatures and, far from being dismissed with a wave of the hand by others with Ph.D.s, he has been published extensively.

    I also happen to know that John Fowles received a graduate degree from Oxford (with distinction, based upon his excellent “dissertation” there) for a piece (which ought to be published) on Goethe and the enlightenment.

    Jonathan says: If you don’t have a Ph.D. in German, then I can dismiss what you think about the field, or the prevalence of postmodernism in it, or your interpretation of the Nibelungenlied, with a wave of the hand if I want to. If you do have a Ph.D., then I have to take you seriously. (I make exceptions for enrolled graduate students making progress towards their degree.)

    I personally was in a Ph.D. program in German at the University of Michigan. That means that I was, just under two years ago, an “enrolled graduate student making progress towards my degree” in German. If he would take me seriously then, did that all change suddenly when I decided to attend law school? What if I published a paper in a scholarly journal (and I plan to work up some of the pieces I did as a Ph.D. student to do just that)- I suppose that it would not be taken seriously…

    I wonder when that magical point is between being a graduate student enrolled in a Ph.D. program and being a law student where I suddenly lose all credibility for the world of German Studies. Will you please tell me, Jonathan? :)

    You know, Jonathan, you actually have spoken with me before, thought you don’t remember it. I was admitted to the Ph.D. program at UIUC (in 2000), and we exchanged a few emails (I think you were in Germany on a DAAD at the time.) I was very impressed by your discovery of old manuscripts (that was you, right?!?).

  20. Kaimi
    July 27, 2004 at 11:33 am


    Perhaps the Ph.D. is a good proxy for being informed.

    It takes time and energy to examine what someone says, and there are a lot of ignorant people willing to make statements about complicated subjects.

    If a rube on the street makes an assertion about Constitutional law, you can probably dismiss it. If Justice Scalia makes an assertion, it is something that must be taken seriously. Maybe not agreed with, but at least taken seriously.

    The same goes for other fields. If I make an assertion about Shakespeare, you probably shoulnd’t take me seriously. I have no real training in the area. If a leading scholar makes an assertion, it should be taken seriously.

    The Ph.D. is a filtering device. Yes, there are non-Ph.D.’s who are as informed as Ph.D.’s. But the signal-to-noise ratio is incredibly unfavorable once you venture outside of the certified (Ph.D.) informed community. And it may not be worth the effort determining exactly who really knows what she’s talking about.

  21. July 27, 2004 at 11:59 am

    Kaimi, you make a good point.

    However, people who are in the field, whatever field it is, are probably informed enough that they can be their own filtering devices without needing to see a Ph.D.

    That is to say, instead of evaluating what someone has to say by the title behind their name, we can evaluate what people say on the merits of their words. For example, if I say something to a group of German professors (who have Ph.D.s) about Heinrich Heine and the Yiddish reception of his works, they will know enough to at least know whether I am spouting nonsense or whether what I say is worth listening to. They can make this judgment on the merits, and it would be kind of silly to just dismiss it with a wave of the hand simply based on title (or lack thereof) alone.

    But the Ph.D. does make a good “proxy for being informed” for those unwilling to listen to others.

    I actually think what you are saying is more accurate when talking to those outside the academic circle- since they probably don’t know anything about the topic, those outside academia probably do need to see the Ph.D. to believe the person addressing them really knows what he is talking about.

    But a German Ph.D. and Instructor like Jonathan Green ought to be able to evaluate pieces within the realm of German Studies on their merits, without needing to see a Ph.D. before lending credibility.

    That is all I am trying to say.

  22. Nate Oman
    July 27, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    Prof. Green: Thanks for the thoughts. It is nice to know that my anxiety is not misplaced.

    Obviously there is something to what you say. If there wasn’t, then Gordon Tullock would have a Nobel Prize in economics. James Buchannan recieved the Nobel prize for a series of works that he co-authored with Gordon Tullock. Buchannan has a Ph.D in economics while Tullock has a law degree. The odd thing is that the Nobel Prize committee more or less made the decision that Tullock’s ideas merited the award; it was just Tullock himself who was wanting.

    To a certain extent my concern is that I don’t have access to certain scholarlly discussions. (I pine constantly about my exclusion from German studies ;->) My larger concern, however, is that I just feel ignorant. I think that I have a fairly high level of knowledge about, say, the Anglo-American philosophy of contract law. On the other hand, knowing this is not much of a consolation when you consider how much there is to know.

    A final point: Despite the whinny and self-indulgent tone of my original post, my main point was less about the nature of higher education and more about the underdeveloped nature of Mormon studies.

  23. Ben Huff
    July 27, 2004 at 9:07 pm

    I try to look on the bright side of what Jim said: In working on my PhD I have developed a pretty strong sense of what kind of ignorance is unacceptable, and what kind is routine, for someone taking part in serious scholarly discussions in my field. Therefore I feel less intimidated trying to take part! I still feel pretty intimidated, though, especially knowing someone like Alasdair MacIntyre who doesn’t even have a PhD but has done some of the most impressive, insightful, transforming work in my field, and along the way shown an amazing acquaintance with all kinds of philosophy, literature and history. And yet, I know enough about Nietzsche to know MacIntyre’s insight has limits, too
    : )
    I also know now that there’s a big difference between having a PhD and being able to write stuff people actually will pay attention to, tho I’ll feel a lot better when I do have it done at long last.

  24. July 27, 2004 at 9:50 pm

    MacIntyre is a good example of the fact that you don’t have to have a PhD if you are really good at what you do. But it was difficult for him to do that, and I think it might be even more difficult today.

  25. john fowles
    July 27, 2004 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for the plug Jordan! That was great. I needed someone like you with “credibility” to take on Jonathan. I just hope his undergraduate students don’t get wind of his attitude (i.e. their ideas aren’t worth his time of day, he might as well dismiss them with a wave of his hand b/c they neither have a PhD nor are graduate students pursuing one).

    (By the way, it is published!)

  26. July 28, 2004 at 4:40 am

    I hate to leave you all hanging, but I’ve been busy today visiting the Norfolk National Fish Hatchery, and getting my in-laws’ AT-style motherboard to fit inside an ATX case, and getting a flat tire fixed. This prevented me from re-joining this discussing until after I should be asleep–the drive back from the Ozarks to the Low Country starts tomorrow morning. All of this tends to bring out my Slytherin side.

    To recap: Nate Oman admitted to having chosen law as his ideal pursuit, but felt some regret for giving up other things, and some inferiority towards Ph.D.’s. As Nate has since owned up to the whininess and self-indulgence of his initial post, and admitted that his actual point was about the field of Mormon Studies, I will only say: Good boy, Nate. You’re absolutely right, all across the board. You chose your dream career, and you’re following it. But you have to pass up on options two, three, and on down the list, and all of those could have been nice, too, but just not as nice for you. Should you feel inferior? Well, yes, but only to the extent of acknowledging others’ expertise, just like I would acknowledge the expertise you have.

    Succeeding comments took a successively dim view of the Ph.D., which is where I stepped in to say that getting a Ph.D. is about learning to do research in your field, in essence learning how to be a scholar; and that earning a Ph.D. gets you in the door to the lucrative and rewarding world of scholarship. Some people disagreed with some of these points.

    I don’t know what’s so hard about the idea that every choice involves tradeoffs. If you study law rather than literature, then you widen your opportunities in the legal field, and shrink your opportunities in the field of literature, by a great degree. That’s just the way things work, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Additionally, you shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that you can’t make a lasting contribution in a field in which you haven’t earned the requisite credential. Sometimes this happens by choice, sometimes not.

    Where to begin? With Russell Fox, of course. He actually has a Ph.D., so I have to take what he has to say about the value of the thing seriously. Plus I worked with him a while ago, and I know he’s an intelligent and thoughtful person. He makes some good observations about the state of the academy. But—
    Speak for yourself, Russ, about the debasedness of Ph.D.’s. My degree is not debased. I’m not claiming my dissertation is brilliant, but I had to get it passed by a demanding and unfriendly committee. You’ve read dissertations from the early and mid 20th century; do you really think they were better? That they were good? Some are; a lot aren’t. I don’t think the ratio has changed. That’s just the nature of dissertations.

    And what’s the deal about theory bashing? In my field, theory is a structured way of expressing what you think is important about literature. You can’t write anything intelligent about literature without an idea of what aspects are worth writing about. Theory poisons the humanities like oxygen poisons the atmosphere. Sure, you can go overboard with it, you can get trapped in theory and never find a way to say anything interesting about literature, but I don’t see it that often. I think socialization and jargon are all good things, too, but I walked past too many tanks of trout hatchlings today to mount a defense of them right now.

    And what’s with the tip-toeing around Jim Faulconer? First John Fowles excuses philosophy from his blanket besmirching of humanities Ph.D.’s, then Russell excuses Jim as one of the Greatest Generation of dissertation writers. That’s just weird. Either you think a Ph.D. is hooey, or maybe Jim’s Ph.D. and subsequent involvement with the whole enterprise of higher education are part of the reason he’s earned your respect.

    John Fowles gets quite worked up over being dismissed with a wave of the hand. Or was it Jordan? John is now working on a law degree at Michigan, but used to be in German—wait, that’s Jordan—or was it John? In any case, Jordan came to his rescue at the end, and they’re both quite worked up about what I said. So let me clarify:

    The important conversations about literature span decades or centuries—hey, I’m a medievalist, I take the long view—and they appear in print. I’m happy to talk about German literature with anyone. But you and me talking don’t affect the course of the field of German literature. My discussions with my students don’t make a contribution to the field, not unless someone puts some serious effort into getting something published.

    If you’re curious, here’s how hand-waving works. If I’m working on the figure of the maiden in Poor Heinrich, for example, I’m under no obligation to take into account the off-the-cuff remarks of my students on the topic. I can forget about it instantly if I want. (If anyone feels the need to warn my students that I don’t take their ideas as seriously as I take, say, Anthony Grafton’s, feel free to use; the link’s under ‘teaching’ on my homepage.) If a scholar of international reputation publishes an article on the maiden, then I can’t ignore it without leaving a major hole in my work. And the same thing is true of dissertations, believe it or not. If you publish a dissertation on the maiden in Hartmann’s Poor Heinrich, I have to look at it before writing about the topic myself. The hard cases are articles by people I’ve never heard of, and the sad fact is that ideas in the field of German don’t stand independently of their authors. If you’ve written an article about the maiden, but the title doesn’t indicate that the thesis is exactly the same as my own, and I can’t find any trace of any other published work, if in fact the article seems to be the one-off product of a graduate student who never completed his Ph.D.—then the article doesn’t make it to the list of things that have to be read. It’s not that I think I’m so smart, but rather that in my experience most articles like that aren’t worth the effort, mine included. A bit of hand-waving, and it’s gone.

    Maybe that sounds harsh, but academia is not a friendly place. I came within 24 hours of exiting academia a year ago, and I may well face the same thing in another year. There are no guarantees here—like I said, there are lots of good reasons for studying law rather than literature. My current Bold New Idea will not fare any better than anyone else’s if I am out of the field for a few years or more.

    Jordan asked about manuscript fragments; yes, those were mine, and I have a couple of articles about them appearing in this year’s Zeitschrift für Deutsche Altertumskunde. I first found and identified them in 1998, but the articles aren’t appearing until now because, among other reasons, I could not have written about them after a couple years of graduate coursework as I could after finishing my degree.

    Jordan also asked if I had met Jack Welch. I haven’t, as far as I know. His brother was my ward organist for a long time; does that count? Then how about this vignette from the MTC in summer of 1990, to return you to your usual discussion of Mormon Studies:

    MTC Teacher: [long story, familiar to all of you, about how a missionary attends lectures at a German university on his off days and discovers chiasmus in the Book of Mormon]
    Me, to a fellow missionary, based on a hunch: And who was that missionary in the story?
    Fellow Missionary: Uh, that would be my dad.

    Yes, I have met both the brother and the son of Jack Welch.

    I’d write more, but my intellectual arrogance is giving out, and I’ve got a long drive ahead of me. Best wishes to all.

  27. July 28, 2004 at 8:58 am


    Excellent rant. I’d intended to write a response this morning to John Fowles’s quite unfair claim that, because you value the sort of discourse represented and enabled by the earning of a Ph.D., you must therefore be dismissive of your students’ efforts. Nothing, I’m sure, could be further from the truth. But I see that you’ve already handed him his head (to re-emphasize, John: encouraging and being receptive to one’s students, and taking student contributions to the heart of one’s research agenda, are rather different things), so I’ll refrain. Incidently, if you drove all the way from Charleston to Mountain View, why didn’t you stop over in Jonesboro? Do so next time. At the very least, I could direct you to some excellent barbeque (much superior to the Carolina kind).

    As for your comments directed towards me, I confess a sloppiness of language. I don’t think I said, and I didn’t mean to say if I did, that the research being done by and for Ph.D.s is “debased”–I mean that the environment within which such research is conducted and assessed often is. In other words, I really was talking about, as you put it, the “state of the academy.” I’m afraid that I do disagree with you about the way in which theorization has been employed and justified in academic discourse throughout the contemporary academy. I don’t deny that attempts to “overcome” theoretically-informed discourse often express nothing more than a desire to bury one’s head in the sand and avoid the sort of difficult and finely discerned problems and issues which require very specialized articulation. However, the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the lack of economic support for the majority of such, and the move of most universities away from the sort of social presumptions (i.e., that having a Ph.D. means entering into a rather elite guild, which both empowers and restricts one in very specific ways) which sustained the classic research assumptions behind such theoretical research, have greatly undermined its justification. Too often, theoretical jargon becomes a away of obsfucate that fact that one has neither the time, resources, inclination, or ability to do all the hard reading necessary to really advance our knowledge of a discipline while also connecting that discipline to the wider world. In other words, contribute to “humane understanding” (Verstehen). And the ugly truth is, I sympathize with those who fall into pointless, theoretical insularity: good heavens man, when you have four classes to teach, plus summer school, and your travel and conference budget has been cut once again, and the library is cancelling subscriptions to journals because more financial aid is needed to prop up declining enrollment in the face of competition…well, you get the idea. Anyone who ever reads the plaintive rants in The Chronicle of Higher Education knows what I’m talking about.

    As for the tip-toeing around Jim, of course I tip-toe around him: the man has deadly kung-fu skills. Moreover, my point again has to do with the state of the academy in general, not research aspirations in particular. Jim earned his Ph.D. back when, thanks to numerous factors, higher education in the U.S. was still working the way it was imagined it would. The world of knowledge that he was socialized to through a specicalized research program was a reality to a far greater extent 25 or 30 years ago than it is today.

  28. July 28, 2004 at 11:27 am


    I am sorry if I offended you- I actually admire you and have for a long time- even if you don’t remember me.

    I had major problems with the “academy”, which is why I decided to leave and attend law school instead. They may not be any nicer in the law, but at least they compensate you for dealing with their crap.

    I still think (and my brother John Fowles is evidence of this, as is Jack Welch) that you can be taken seriously in any field, with or without a Ph.D., if you have intelligent things to say about a topic.

    And I am still curious about this “line”. In your first post, you said that the “hand-waving” does not apply to graduate students working on their Ph.D. Is the line where these students begin getting dismissed by your hand-wave crossed once they decide to be ABD, or once they leave for another program? I guess that would be a logical place to draw the line.

    What if I were to publish MY Oxford dissertation (both John and I received master’s degrees from Oxford)? Would that be just dismissed as well?

    I have been thinking about getting it ready and submitting it when I have time, but after reading what you say, I guess that would be wasted effort?

    I am not bashing Ph.D.s- on the contrary- having been on that track I have respect for those willing to finish and face the dismal prospects of getting a good job in their field. Great respect! I was merely expressing incredulity at the idea that you have to have one to be taken seriously in any field.

  29. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Okay, since no one is really interested in talking about Mormon Studies on this thread, let me make a couple of points in response to Jonathan Green’s rant:

    1. I suspect that if the market for Ph.D’s in German lit were better, professors at small southern liberal arts colleges would be a bit less defensive and the arrogance and condescention would be a little less stated. Or perhaps not…

    2. The ability to participate in specialized discussions is not the same thing as knowledge. A better way of saying this is that being an expert in German literature doesn’t mean that you really know very much about the world. Hence, a defense of Ph.D’s is not really the same thing as a response to the anxiety of universal ignorance. Of course, short of deification, there is probably no solution to the problem of universal ignorance. This is why the whinning is perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but the anxiety is nevertheless real.

    3. The role of the Ph.D in modern American intellectual life was largely set up by Charles Elliot, the President of Harvard College at the end of the 19th century. Elliot is the person who pushed the ideas of disciplinary specialization, autonomy, and academic professionalism. The problem is that legal intellectuals also live in the world Charles Eliot made. (BTW, there are those who study law because it is intellectually interesting rather than simply more lucrative that German lit.) Elliot hired Christopher Columbus Langdell to reform Harvard Law School, and in the process he created modern American legal education. The problem is that the institutional framework set up by Langdell continues even though the faith in the intellectual autonomy of law upon which it was based has been lying in shattered ruins for three or four generations. What this means is that the institutional structure of legal education and the requirements of the profession are at war with the intellectual requirements of legal thought. In my mind there is no good solution to this problem. Hence, while Russell laments the passing of the system Elliot built and Jonathan huffily defends its legitimating myths, niether of them have to live in the world of utter intellectual chaos that Elliot and Langdell have bequethed to legal intellectuals. Furthermore, the problem is not simply that law professors are stupid or poorly trained (although many are both). Rather, it is that jurisprudence doesn’t have the luxury of hyper-specialization and self-satisfied preening about the mastery of academically defined arcana. This is because there is no consensus on the basic language in which the discussion is supposed to proceed. Those who seek to solve this problem with various reductionist agendas (think Dworkin and philosophy or Posner and economics) are inevitably pulled back into the pluralistic theoretical soup of “legal” thought (think Posner’s turn to “pragmatism”) or pushed by toward discplinary mainstreaming (think Dworkin’s turn away from legal philosophy toward kibbitzing about equality), in which case they simply become philosophy or economics professors who happen to have an office in the law school. (Why exactly is Martha Nussbaum at Chicago Law School? What are James Buchannan or Vernon Smith doing at George Mason Law School?)

    Hence, my ambivalence about Ph.Ds is not simply that gee, I wish that I too could publish SERIOUS stuff about German literature. Rather, it is an expression of the fact that I live in a world of intellectual chaos, and it doesn’t look as though I am going to escape it in the near future.

  30. July 28, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    Nicely put, Nate. That is kind of how I understood your post in the first place.

    And I too, did not leave the world of academia for merely financial reasons, although now that I an in the legal world I must admit that it is nice. I have never felt more intellectually stimulated in all my days of graduate school as I have since I began studying the law.

    Although learning old Germanic languages, reading old documents, and doing research into various German language islands in the United States as well as other research endeavours was fun, it was not as intellectually stimulating (to me) as have been forays into the world of law and economics and other such wonders.

    Add the improved financial situation to that, and I am in heaven.

    BTW- on a different note, have any of you with Ph.D.s noticed how people get a glazed look in their eyes when you start talking about your interests? I did as a graduate student, and it drove me nuts. Why they couldn’t see the importance of syllable structure in Gothic was beyond me, because I find/found it interesting.

  31. July 28, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    Sorry to comment again.

    I just noticed another aspect of Nate’s post that I really like- his talk of the “pluralistic theoretical ‘soup’ of legal thought”.

    That is another thing that I found so appealing about the law.

    And Jonathan is right about one thing- although I disagree about how the world SHOULD be, when I examine how things actually are I find that I am not taken as seriously in the University of Michigan German Department, and that I have actually been labelled as a “sell-out” by some.

    Although such talk actually hurts me more deeply than those with such ideas could possibly know, I guess it is what I will always have to live with from those who decided to perservere with the Ph.D. As Jonathan put it, it is part of the opportunity cost of my decision, I guess. However, looking at the issue rationally, I have to say that this is why Jonathan’s comments struck a chord in me. It reminds me too much of friends that I had in the acadmic LDS community who now no longer seem to want to have anything to do with me, since I “sold my soul” to the law.

    Why that is, I do not know. I still have the same ideas that swam in my head as a doctoral student. I still have the same interests, and have added on a whole new legal dimension.

    Thus, my “rant” against what Jonathan said was probably more a reaction to the hurt caused by people (like Jonathan?) who have ceased taking me seriously or even associating with me since I began law school.


  32. Frank McIntyre
    July 28, 2004 at 1:24 pm


    Are you complaining that the law is not sufficiently compartmentalized so that it is difficult to super-specialize?

    Or are you complaining that the law lacks a central paradigm to focus it into a discipline?

    Or both.

    Or are you just complaining?

    I am guessing that the following is an important sentence:

    “What this means is that the institutional structure of legal education and the requirements of the profession are at war with the intellectual requirements of legal thought.”

    So are you complaining about trying to integrate teaching people to be lawyers with researching or teaching about the underpinnings of law as a discipline? Does this differ from the problems faced by professors in Business Schools teaching MBa’s? Or are you pining for a more well developed tradition of a PHd in legal studies?

  33. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 1:39 pm


    I think that there are basically three kinds of people who go to law school.

    1. People who want to be rich.
    2. People who studied the humanities and the social sciences in college and/or graduate school and don’t know what else to do.
    3. People who are interested in the law.

    The problem is that most grad students (especially in the humanities and social sciences) that I have met assume that there are only type 1 and 2. They prean themselves on their moral superiority to type 1. (“We are concerned with the finer things of the soul, and THEY are all just money grubbing philistines.”) As for type 2, the grad students tend to assume that these folks are simply too stupid, lazy, or undisciplined to hack it in Ph.D programs and the academy. Some of the nicer grad students are likely to admitt that lawyers may be socially useful (kind of like grabage collecters) even if they are intellectually and spiritually inferior. I have also met folks who are willing to grant some legitimacy to the study of law because they imagine that once you are armed with a JD you might go forth into public interest law to battle for justice and truth. (My experience in law school suggested that many of those with a serious professed interest in public interest law tended to by hypocrites or narrow-minded bores.)

    What is unimaginable is that the study of law could actually be intellectually interesting and challenging. Admittedly, this is unimaginable for many (if not most) law students as well. This is because those in categories 1 and 2 find to their utter amazement that once you get into law school you study the law, and as it happens the law had little or nothing to do with their choice to go to law school.

    I agree with you that the intellectual chaos of the law is a great deal of fun, and ultimately it is precisely this character of law that attracted me to law school. On the other hand, it is also the aspect of the law that gnaws at the roots of my soul in the dark hours of the night…

  34. Kristine
    July 28, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    So, um, now that Nate’s made it legitimate, I can publicly admit that I, too, took the LSAT during the second year of my grad program in German (and, btw, what is the *deal* with all the Germanists manque(e)s around here?? I think we almost outnumber the Korean missionaries!). My motivation was something like what Nate describes–I hated the specialization aspect of the Ph.D., and people were always telling me that the law was the last refuge for the scoundrel and the generalist.

  35. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    Frank: I think that part of what I am complaining about is that there is no central research paradigm which means that it is very difficult to figure out what counts as useful and competent research. My second complaint is that the structure of training for the legal academy is too unstructured and informal. You don’t get to have some magic moment in which the discplinary door keepers pronounce you competent to enter the fray. Rather, you need to get a JD and along with a bunch of other rather ill-defined stuff(e.g. the JD needs to be from one of about five schools, do law review, work with the right professors, clerk, publish, become familiar with certain secondary literatures, maybe a second degree maybe not etc. etc.)

    To a certain extent I think that the requirement that legal academics train lawyers places limitations on how you study the law. (A faculty of economists, philosophers, or historians simply won’t work. The economists may do nifty work about optimal contract structure, but you still need someone to teach the intricacies of the law of sales or Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code.) On the other hand, I actually think that the link to the profession is useful precisely because it insures that the law cannot be completely colonized by another discipline with a reductionist agenda. I would, however, like a more formally defined and structured track for the training of legal academics. They have this in Europe: one track for judges, one track for lawyers, one track for law professors. On the other hand, one of the things that happens with the formalized track is that the academic legal discussions are more insular, formalistic, and boring. The chaos of American legal education produces ferment and cross-polinization that keeps things fun. It is not, however, without its down side…

  36. July 28, 2004 at 2:39 pm


    I have a good friend who is entering a joint JD/Phd program in the Fall. The Phd is in political philosophy and the joint degree seems expressly created as a “formally defined and structured track” for aspiring law professors. Is this kind of program as uncommon as you make it seem?

  37. July 28, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    Um, excuse my laziness. Of course, that should read Ph.D.

  38. July 28, 2004 at 3:02 pm

    One last thought—I agree with Jim’s first comment that academics spend our time frightened that we will be found out.

    The first class I ever solo taught was Introduction to Philosophy at a small liberal arts college in Connecticut. I applied for and got the position the day before classes began. I had no syllabus, no books ordered, no lectures notes, nothing. Despite daily diligent preparations I only managed to stay about a day ahead of the class the entire semester. This contributed to a fairly regular panic that I would be “found out.” I later told a friend of mine, a tenured professor of economics at Berkeley, about my experience and he laughed and said that that feeling of panic had never left him and he was quite sure that all academics experience the same thing. At the time I felt relieved at his words. Since then I never have.

  39. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    Melissa: There are a couple of fully integrated joint degree programs — JSP at Berkely and Philosophy at Texas or Boston, etc. But they have had mixed records. (I don’t think that the Texas program, which I looked into fairly seriously, has placed a single person yet.) The problem is that they tend to be joined with lower ranked law schools (ie Boalt Hall, Texas, Boston University, etc.). To give you some idea of the dominance of a few schools in legal academia consider the fact that 53% of all new faculty hires in the last five years graduated from Harvard Law School or Yale Law School. If you add Stanford, Chicago, and Columbia to that list, you have 77% of the hires coming out of just five schools. None of these schools have really good integrated JD/Ph.D programs. There are a fair number of JD/Ph.Ds who have a JD from one of these schools, but they frequently get their Ph.D someplace else or have to create their own program from scratch. There is an argument that the JD/Ph.D is the wave of the future for law schools, and perhaps this is correct, but the numbers don’t bear this out, at least not yet. I took the advice of some fiends who had been burned by JD/Ph.D programs and did the “traditional track.” In retrospect, this may have been a mistake, as my whining suggests. I know folks who did parallell degrees at Harvard and Yale and I am sure that they are all destined for greatness.

    However, the average new law prof is still someone who went to Harvard or Yale, worked on law review, clerked for a federal judge, and then practiced law in New York or Washington, DC for a couple of years. We’ll see.

    Where is your friend going? Sounds like fun…

  40. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 3:11 pm

    Melissa: I wrote a long and eloquent response to your comment that has been lost. The short answer is that the integrated Ph.D/JD may be the wave of the future and the salvatio of the universe. The problem is that thus far such programs have been mainly coupled with second tier law schools. The problem is that something like five law schools account for 77% of new faculty hires, and thus far these schools have only tepidly endorsed joint degree programs. The average new law prof is still a person who went to Harvard or Yale, did law review, clerked for a federal judge, practiced in New York or DC, wrote a law review article or two and got hired. Maybe this will change. Who knows…

  41. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 3:23 pm


    Oops again. “Friends” not “fiends”

  42. July 28, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    He’s going to UPenn to work with Samuel Freeman (a student of Rawls). Besides the intellectual benefits, one of the nice bonuses of the joint program is that law school is fully funded.

    I had another friend at Yale who tried to do the parallel track thing (philosophy Ph.D. and JD) but got a legal job before finishing his dissertation. I think an income after 6 years of graduate school would be very tempting so I can’t blame him. I just wonder if he would have stayed to finish the Ph.D. had it been a joint program that would have left him debt-free.

    If very good schools like UPenn have such programs why do you think that Harvard and Yale don’t?

  43. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    UPenn doesn’t produce law professors (2% of new faculty hires in the last five years). I suspect that the joint program may be an attempt by the law school to raise the profile of their graduates within the legal academy. Frankly, Harvard and Yale don’t have to try.

    I looked long and hard at joint programs at Texas and Columbia. I had an offer from Harvard. At the end of the day, I was persuaded by the fact that only 5% of new law profs were from Columbia and Texas was less than 2%. Harvard accounts for 23%. (Yale accounts for 30%, but I didn’t get into Yale.)

  44. July 28, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Kristine, the Germanist manque(e)s are unlikely to outnumber the returned Korean missionaries just yet since two of us (Russell and I–perhaps also others) are, by requirement of our academic interests, also Germanists of sorts.

    Russell, you would be surprised at just how unprepared for a specialized research program by my graduate education. I think the basic ideas of my dissertation were good, good enough that I’m still working on them. But the dissertation itself was not good and doing it didn’t give me many of the skills I needed to do research. I loved being a graduate student (though not having one’s income), but I don’t think that the academy in the late 60s and early 70s was that much different than it is today. Even then the American Philosophical Association was sending out a letter with acceptances to grad school that said, “You’re not going to get a job.”

    I lucked out getting a job and I learned a lot more about my field after getting it than I did before, but the latter is partly because I decided I was tired of Hegel and had become interested in 20th c. stuff.

  45. July 28, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    The joint program at UPenn is less than ten years old so the numbers likely don’t reflect students who have pursued the joint program there. You are right that “the joint program may be an attempt by the law school to raise the profile of their graduates within the legal academy,” but UPenn has become very committed overall to cross-disciplinary programs. For example, there seems to be a strong MBA/JD program there through Wharton as well.

    It sounds like you probably made the right choice (as long as you aren’t too sorry that you don’t have a Ph.D.) in order to be a law professor. My friend’s first love is philosophy so he didn’t even apply to law schools without joint programs in philosophy–although he did apply to several philosophy departments without joint programs in law. He’ll be happy as an out of work philosopher.

    Having been through HLS do you think that the courses are more theoretical or markedly different from other good law schools? I ask because I tend to dislike the bias towards Ivy League schools in hiring. I certainly felt the pressure in my own field to get into IV’s for both degrees, but these things seem somewhat arbitrary to me. In the humanities I’m even quite sure that the best teaching is often elsewhere (although there are notable exceptions, of course).

  46. July 28, 2004 at 3:56 pm


    Funding is also one of the nice benefits of having started Michigan in a Ph.D. program for me. Because I continue to teach in the German Department (and because the graduate student instructors at Michigan have one of the best graduate EMPLOYEE unions in the country), the German department has paid for every penny of my legal education.

  47. July 28, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    Nate, could I be forgiven for thinking that I can detect at least a slight disconnect between the fact that you profess to take offense at the stereotypical elite liberal academic dismissal of those who enter law school (i.e., “We are concerned with the finer things of the soul, and THEY are all just money-grubbing philistines”), but at the same time, as your correspondence with Melissa indicates, apparently seem to have premised many of your educational decisions thusfar at least partly on a strict and, shall we say, fairly unromantic assessment of the odds of being placed in your targeted career niche via training at various different institutions? I’m just asking. Remember, you were the one who waxed eloquent about the “alienation” you feel at having embraced being a yuppie.

    Jim, as I said in my comment following Jonathan’s, I don’t really think I’m talking about the quality or structure of Ph.D.-earning research and institutions either 30 years ago or today; I’m talking about how said research and institutions operate in accordance with social rules that are not really functional any longer. Obviously the two are related; as I tried to say in my point about theory, one of the ways in which some persons committed to certain disciplines have responded to this ongoing meltdown is by using what should have been careful and reserved theoretical languages to obsfucate entrance to and assessment of their own work. But really, that’s a side issue. All I’m saying is that, to put it crudely, Ph.D.s (both the degree itself and those who possess them) neither are perceived as part of nor play the same role in American higher education today that they did as recently as 30 years ago, and consequently the claims to knowledge made in accordance with such an arrangement simply don’t carry the same force they once did.

    (As for the warning you received from the American Philosophical Association, all I can say is that they certainly had great foresight. It was a level of wisdom apparently not shared by some other academic organizations, to the degree to which Ph.D.-granting institutions might have internalized such warnings and inculcated them into their students; I honestly cannot think of a single Ph.D. in politics of your generation, Jim, who hasn’t, when I’ve discussed the job market and the state of the discipline with them, readily agreed that things have changed tremendously over the last 30 years, and that the world of higher education they were taught to anticipate is likely no longer a real option for most.)

    Incidentally, I should add, in regards to Nate’s comment that “Russell laments the passing of the system Elliot built…”, that while I’m clearly bothered that the limited-yet-elite universe of knowledge that my training was premised upon is probably not going to be one I’ll ever be able to fully enjoy, I’m not sure I “lament its passing,” in the sense of thinking it’s an overall loss. I’m quite willing to defend the classic university ideal, but I also recognize it was flawed in many ways (politically, socially, morally). The democratization of knowledge is nothing to sneeze at.

  48. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    Melissa: I can’t really speak to the type of training at other schools. I suspect that Harvard and (even more so) Yale are more theoretical than other law schools. One advantage of HLS has to do with resources. They are a rich school with a large faculty. The result is that they do virtually everything (with the exception of legal philosophy) very well. I got to study legal history, Islamic law, corporations law, constitutional law and commercial law with arguably the best five people in the country in those fields. I don’t think there is another place in the country you could do that. (Maybe Yale) Also, HLS has a huge diversity of course offerings: you like comparative South African constitutional law, they’ve got it. On the other hand, I doubt that there is a serious difference in the education that you get at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, NYU, Stanford, Michigan, or any of the other dozen schools in the top ten. HLS and Yale probably have a bit more star power, but that is it.

  49. jeremobi
    July 28, 2004 at 4:34 pm


    A growing list of schools now offers joint degrees (PhD/JD). Though in my Government department, I can’t think of a single soul on this track. Much more common are JDs returning to school for Ph.D. The public law subfield is making resurgence in polysci and in my department there are three Harvard JDs and another half dozen from other programs seeking further light and knowledge (generally in comparative constitutional engineering, or comparative rights and liberties). My understanding is all are seeking academic appointments in either politics departments or law schools.

    BTW, these students do tell me that their PhD academic program is a very different experience than law school—less memorization, probably less daily reading, but more emphasis on original thought and, at least for these few, more “demanding.” Their word, not mine; I don’t know enough to judge.

    I can’t speak much to the choice to attend law school, but my very limited experience validates Nate’s categorization of law school students. My elder brother and brother-in-law both attended law school (NYU), but for very different reasons. My brother was interested in the law—a law geek into tax and employment law if you can imagine. My brother-in-law quite openly states that he chose the law as a means to get rich. Both found what they sought.

    I now attend a ward with a number of law students coming and going, and I always make a point to ask them why they chose law. My hope, but not expectation, is that they would express a curiosity or fascination about some aspect of legal studies. I bet I’ve asked 25-30 students, and not one has expressed anything like “interest in the law.” Most fall into the second category and say they “don’t really know, but it seemed like a good thing to do” or that “my mission president (a lawyer) said I should” and very many also mention the money.

    So I don’t assume law students are all type 1 or type 2, only that they are the mode from my limited experience. As my friends have graduated law school, some occasionally admit that in “law school you study the law”, and a few may have even considered it as a life goal! But a tiny fraction (I can think of two off the top of my head) has claimed to develop any appetite for using their newly minted skills for anything other than getting a little something for themselves or their family (not necessarily a poor choice).

    Again, mine is a very limited understanding, so I’m pleased to hear your experience is different.

    Re: the “glazed look in their eyes when you start talking about your interests”…
    I only get this when hearing talk of the “pluralistic theoretical ‘soup’ of legal thought.” :>)

  50. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    “Nate, could I be forgiven for thinking that I can detect at least a slight disconnect between the fact that you profess to take offense at the stereotypical elite liberal academic dismissal of those who enter law school (i.e., “We are concerned with the finer things of the soul, and THEY are all just money-grubbing philistines”), but at the same time, as your correspondence with Melissa indicates, apparently seem to have premised many of your educational decisions thusfar at least partly on a strict and, shall we say, fairly unromantic assessment of the odds of being placed in your targeted career niche via training at various different institutions?”

    Russell: I don’t think that you could be forgiven for entertaining such thoughts, but I am not an especially fogiving person ;-> Saying that you want to be a law professor because you think it would be intellectually stimulating and fun, and then pursuing that goal in a pragmatic way does not seem to me to be inconsistent with believing that the law is intellectually stimulating and its study should not be dismissed as the landing place of sell outs and the money-grubbing. Suppose that I am deeply moved by German romanticism and political philosophy and I want to spend my life studying such things. (Such creatures exist.) As a result, I decide to get a Ph.D rather than simply reading in my spare time because having such a degree increases the liklihood that I can get a job focusing on such things. Is there some disconnect here? Surely the desire to focus on a particular subject matter is hardly inconsistent with making strategic choices that would allow such a focus? Perhaps there is less such strategic maneuvering among those interested in the humanities, but I doubt it.

  51. July 28, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Fair enough; my apologies. I admit to having been taken by surprise at your ready and detailed knowledge of law school placement rates, though it may very likely be that my lack of such knowledge regarding my own field simply displays an unseriousness on my part.

  52. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 5:02 pm

    Russell: The market for jobs as a law prof is insanely competitive. It makes sense to think strategically. Those who don’t are either freakishly brilliant (not me) or spending the rest of their life doing due diligence on Wallstreet (not me I pray!). Also, Brian Leiter and Larry Solum recently collected the latest round of numbers on hires at their blogs, so the information was readily available, although I did have similar information when I made my decision about law schools.

  53. July 28, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Nate’s categorization of the kinds of people who choose law school makes sense. Unfortunately, in my experience most students in my classes fall into one of the first two categories. The problem is that those are also the ones who often find that they hate the law and the practice of it, with the result that they are quite unhappy with their career choices. (I base that judgment on the number of former students who call or write me depressed about being lawyers.) I think that studying law makes as much sense as studying anything else, but only if one actually wants to study law. The prospects for job and life satisfaction are not good for someone who chooses to do something she dislikes.

  54. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 7:21 pm

    Jim, I think that you are right. There are a lot of miserable lawyers, I think, not because the law is necessarily miserable (some parts are), but because people end up in law school by default rather than deliberate choice. Law school becomes a convient landing place for the college educated person who is better with words than numbers and who wants a middle class life style. This is an unusually bad set of reasons to embark on something as grueling as legal education or as demanding as the practice of law. If the law doesn’t interest you, DON’T BECOME A LAWYER. It is too much work and life is too short. On the other hand, the fact that there are a lot of smart miserable lawyers doesn’t mean that the law offers nothing of real intellectual interest or substance.

  55. July 28, 2004 at 7:47 pm


    What if you happen to be one of those people who is not really interested in anything? Isn’t law as good a career (or better) than others because of the financial prospects and the job stability? In other words, if you are the type of person who is likely to be miserable no matter what you do, why not choose the law? (I pity that person, but such do exist…)

  56. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 8:00 pm

    I am not so sure law is such a good move. Here it depends on how smart you are (if I may use so loaded a term). The median salary for lawyers is not actually all that high. Hence, unless you can get into the top half or top quarter of the profession, your options elsewhere may be more lucrative.

  57. July 28, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    Well, my vision is a little skewed since I pretty much only applied (and was admitted) to the top 10-12 schools, where all of my classmates who want to are working at 6 figure firms. So I guess you are right.

    (I chose Michigan because of the extraordinary funding situation with German teaching, etc.)

  58. July 28, 2004 at 8:29 pm

    I enjoy my dilettante ways. It’s part of the whole beauty of a comparative literature degree. There’s always some new, pretty bauble to look at and no one forces you to settle on, say, Early American Novels or whatever.

    And yes, German was my ‘comparative’language for my MA, but I can’t claim manque status as my actual knowledge of the language is slim (and getting slimmer).

    But to speak to Nate’s original post — I admit that one of the reasons I find the field of Mormon literature so appealing is that it is rather maneagable — even more so than history or philosophy/theology. And, yes, the maneagability factor is a bit misleading because there is so much work that needs to be done.

    The problem is exacerbated for Mormon literary studies because there just aren’t enough literary works to draw upon in creating a Mormon criticism.

    And without a substantial body of criticism it’s difficult to figure out how to enter/approach the conversation.

  59. Nate Oman
    July 28, 2004 at 9:26 pm

    William: I think that you have similar problems if you try to think about Mormon jurisprudence or Mormon political theory. One response is simply to give up, and either wait a century or two to see what happens or declare Mormonism incapable of intellectual advance in these areas. The other alternative is simply to make it up, which would be fun but more than a little daunting ;->…

  60. July 29, 2004 at 2:27 am


    I’m not sure I have that kind of patience. ;-).

    But making it up is, perhaps, more of an option for us literary types. In fact, it’s a huge temptation what with all those quotes about Shakespeares and Miltons and doing the Book of Mormon justice. That’s why so much of Mormon criticism is almost prophetic in nature — that or whining about the conditions that impede the fulfillment of Mormon literature’s promise.

    In fact, (as I may have mentioned before) that’s why I think Eugene England’s breaking up of Mormon literature into 4 distinct periods is so interesting — Foundations, Home Literature, Lost Generation, Faithful Realism. I’m not saying that England is wrong in his characterization of the development of Mormon literature. But the beauty of it is that the period were currently in — Faithful Realism — is presented as a correction (of sorts) of the problem with home literature and the lost generation. Thus the focus of much criticism is on the current period as the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise of Mormon literature — and each work can be measured as a sign of what we might expect in the future or as an incremental step in the production of (or the conditions that could lead to) a true Mormon literay genius.

  61. Jonathan Green
    July 30, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Just in case anyone is still reading this thread, 24 hours or so after the last comment was posted—I think this is the point where we all kiss and make up.

    The most recent comments about legal education were enlightening. For a long time I’ve wondered where law professors come from, and Nate Ornan’s explanation was quite helpful. Now that I see the context, the original post makes quite a bit of sense. I’m sorry to have gotten Nate’s nose a bit out of joint. That was not intended, and he certainly didn’t deserve it.

    Jeff and Jordan (who I do remember, really) were still curious about drawing lines between who gets to brush off whom, and today, after driving across the country and enjoying the scenery and stopping twice for Aldi chocolate along the way, I find myself much more generously disposed towards Ideas. My most recent rant (thanks, Russell, for the correct genre classification), that a single article causes no ripples in the pond, was based, I realized, on my current experience working on a conference paper on a somewhat new topic that has a fairly large body of previous literature, with limited time and resources. But it’s not the only way I do research. On my master’s thesis, for example, on a fairly obscure topic, I read everything anybody had ever written about it, no matter how obscure the source. So go ahead and publish: sometime, somewhere, someone else will read and be influenced by it, and you will have made your mark on the field. The marketplace of ideas is again open for business. I still find the practical obstacles daunting, but now is not the time or place for them. This is, after all, kiss-and-make-up time. (And you actually tried to tell people what you were working on as a grad student? Didn’t you realize how hazardous that can be to all concerned?)

    Really, I have only a small supply of arrogance, and it runs out easily. And I can hardly carry off condescension at all. Even if I were not at a small liberal arts college in the South, or even if I had never found any academic job after grad school, I would still have the same urge to defend the Ph.D., I think, because earning mine made my education complete in a way that nothing else had done. But I will admit to the same anxieties about ignorance and lost opportunities that others in this thread have discussed. If the job market in German were better, I would not have some anxieties, but I would still have those.

    And Russell, I deeply regret missing out on Jonesboro barbecue. Next time, I promise.

    To sum up:
    Eight! Eight! And we can skate. Look now! We can skate with eight.
    But I can do nine. And hop! And drink! You can not do this, I think.
    We can! We can! We can do it, too. See here. We are as good as you!
    We all are very good I think. With nine, we all can hop and drink!
    Nine is very good. But then… Come on and we will make it ten!
    Look! Ten apples up on top! We are not going to let them drop!

  62. john fowles
    July 31, 2004 at 2:43 am

    Nate: Some of the nicer grad students are likely to admitt that lawyers may be socially useful (kind of like grabage collecters) even if they are intellectually and spiritually inferior.

    I grudgingly had to concede that I am, essentially, a plumber, even though I am genuinely interested in law as law, or as an academic discipline. I went to the wrong law school to make any use of that interest (aside from trying to continue to publish now that I have graduated); the massive debt that going to any other law school would have required scared me away, quite frankly. In retrospect, I think that you made the right decision in going to Harvard for its name (despite the cost) so that you could keep that door to legal academia open for yourself.

    By the way, there might be a fourth type of person who goes to law school: someone who is smart enough to be all of the first three. Although perhaps repugnant to be a naked number one (although it seems silly that one would be criticized because they decided to spend their efforts building a career that is both successful and lucrative) and unadmirable to be a mere number 2, it seems that someone who is both practical enough and smart enough at the same time to unite those first two with your third category deserves some credit.

    Dr. Green: I think you missed the point with Jordan’s reference to Jack Welch. It is not about whether you know him or not but whether you accept that despite the fact that he has no PhD, his is still a voice that is causing “ripples” in several fields. Why should anyone take him seriously if he doesn’t have the magic three letters behind his name? It is because of the ideas he is bringing to the table and the skilled and disciplined research that he is contributing to his fields of interest. Getting a PhD would be completely irrelevant to his ability to do this. Incidentally, he jumped out of his Oxford program for law school for the same reason as many of us on this thread. At any rate, I appreciated your conciliatory tone in your last post and am now willing to accept that ideas are important to you for their own merit.

  63. August 3, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    That is exactly what I meant, John.

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