Teaching, Principles and the Role of the Professor

Leonard V. Kaplan, a faculty member who was ensnared in a controversy over remarks he says were misreported, reflects on the larger issues for academe raised by the fracas.

December 14, 2007

The following is a speech delivered by Professor Kaplan this month to the Rotary Club of Madison, Wisconsin. The text is reprinted here with his permission.

On February 15 of this year, in a class in legal process at the University of Wisconsin Law School, I commented on problems encountered by Hmong people who have immigrated to Wisconsin. My comments were misreported in student e-mail correspondence which became public and was published in the local press. As a result, a distorted view of my February 15 class became international news.

I do not intend to repeat the details of this controversy today. My own account is available in a letter of March 5 to the dean of the Law School. The letter was made public with my permission and is available on the Internet. In the letter, I expressed my regret at the pain that any of my actions may have caused. However, this controversy has left important issues of principle unresolved. Today I shall attempt to address these issues through a description of the goals of my legal process course as they were reflected in my class on February 15. I devote my legal process course to the legal, cultural, and political questions that will face my students when they enter practice in a global world where the old truths are increasingly discredited and new thinking is imperative. But one cannot arrive at the new without an awareness of the history from which the new derives and by which it is shaped, even though, as I teach my students, that history may itself be contested.

My starting point is the liberal state. The modern liberal state guarantees individual rights, without itself being committed to any particular view of the common good as the object of human aspiration. When academics speak of the liberal state, they do not mean Democrats or Republicans. They do not mean Christian or Social Democrats in Germany or any other political regime. For academic purposes, each of the European and North American states is a liberal state with its own political, legal, and cultural norms.

In the United States, we claim enumerated rights held personally by each citizen, but not necessarily by everyone who lives here, since citizens may have rights that non-citizens do not. As these rights are constitutionally based, they are subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the rights analysis of many major political and social issues is, in fact, contested. The Supreme Court is currently reassessing basic questions of rights; abortion, affirmative action, stem cell research, church and state relations, habeas corpus, national security, executive power in an age of perpetual terrorist threat and even academic freedom are examples of the sensitive issues with which we are faced.

These debates raise larger questions: Is our talk about rights really meaningful or merely rhetoric? Though we pay lip service to universal rights, non-citizens in the United States may get something less. Even citizens may get less than a “right to happiness” if the state does not establish the material conditions necessary to make such a right possible.

Each of these issues inspires passionate responses. We can and will disagree about them for very cogent reasons, and that disagreement can become inflamed and unreflective. But in a law school, in which students learn to be lawyers, the issues must be addressed rationally and analytically, and learning must have primacy. It is a law school’s obligation to provide an environment in which faculty can address and teach students how to assess volatile issues. The maintenance of an appropriate environment must take precedence over the issues being discussed. If a law school fails to do this, our rights and the rule of law itself may be put at risk.

The background for my class on February 15 was a text by Schlomo Avineri that I had assigned earlier in the semester: Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. I use the text in my course to establish some of the historical roots of the liberal state and to consider certain problems identified by the 19th century German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel developed a critique of what was then shaping up as the liberal state in Europe, not only in Germany, but also England, France, and the United States.

Hegel set out the conditions required for an ethical modern, mass state. He was not a utopian. He saw rather clearly that the liberal state, notably in the United States, presented only civil society and not the ethical state. Hegel's ethical state would not only recognize each person as an individual, but would also make available the material conditions necessary for each person to thrive. Hegel argued that providing rights while ignoring familial and communal bonds fails to provide the conditions necessary for individual fulfillment. Therefore, for Hegel, the principle of one person, one vote is not enough. If people lack community, the abstract right to vote and any other abstract right is ineffective. In Hegel's view, a liberal state must foster community -- through labor organizations, political organizations, fraternal organizations, and the like. It must ensure that individuals can express themselves and know that their views are taken into account in the community. This point needs to be underscored. Rotary, for example, is a group with disparate views of politics, culture and religion. But we are bound together for a series of reasons including the ideal of service and the four-way test that may sound laughable to cynics.

Hegel identified two problems that were central to the class on February 15. First, he understood that the liberal state must address the poverty that follows from a pure capitalist political economy. Here he followed the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, most famously, Adam Smith. Hegel’s ethical state would have to intervene in market arrangements to help the poor, but without disabling market efficiency. This problem is still with us.

The second problem is pluralism. We all talk about pluralism. The concept has invoked a huge literature. The existence of such a large literature suggests that there is no great clarity concerning the concept. Yet pluralism is a central problem for the liberal state. (I would argue that it is also an essential problem for a neo-liberal, market-driven, world economy.) Hegel understood the need in mass societies for people of diverse languages, religions, ethnicities, and today we would add gender identifications, to get along politically.

That is not an easy task. Carl Schmitt, a leading theorist for the Nazis and an apologist for Hitler’s democratic seizure of power, claimed that liberalism is impossible because it requires a commitment to a heterogeneous population. Schmitt insisted that pluralism, in any event, is not a worthy value. He argued that to be vital, a political community must be homogeneous. For Schmitt, liberalism stands only for marketplace and profit, not for the vitality of a unified sovereign purpose beyond individual greed. In accord with Schmitt, Hitler sought to create a
homogeneous population of Aryans. The example of Schmitt, Hitler and Weimar Germany underscores the importance of the problem of pluralism.

Hegel spotted the issue. He did not solve it. And neither have we. To commit to pluralism is to commit to living with people whose practices are very different from our own, so long as their behavior is not criminal. But the line between what is normative and what is criminal is very often difficult to draw, and it is always negotiated. For example, if many believe that abortion is a transgression against divine law, it is hard to find a pluralistic compromise on this issue.

On February 15, I had assigned a reading from Neil Duxbury, Patterns of American Jurisprudence, to illustrate the interplay between legal formalism and the problems of the liberal state. In the 1890s, legal thought in the United States was dominated by two tendencies of what Duxbury calls formalism, each deriving from different historical sources. Duxbury identifies one formalist tendency with Christopher Columbus Langdell, a famous dean of Harvard Law School. Langdell created the case method for teaching law at Harvard. He believed that he could present a taxonomy of cases and that the great number of cases in each area of law would reduce to a few from which he could abstract even fewer fundamental principles. He thought that once students learned these principles, they would be able to apply them and reach the correct outcome in specific cases.

The other formalist tendency was the adoption by American courts of the ideology of the marketplace. American courts assumed, for example, that every party to a contract had the capacity and the autonomy necessary to enter an agreement. Courts considered the relative knowledge and strength of the parties irrelevant. In several famous cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that attempts by state legislatures to protect the economically powerless were unconstitutional. The ideology of freedom of contract, not economic reality, was paramount.

Formalism in law tends to assume that legal rules can be identified and applied scientifically to the facts in controversy in order to yield a reasonable outcome. But the mechanical application of a rule of law to difficult cases can lead to injustice. For example, Robert Cover, in his book, Justice Accused, points out how abolitionist judges in the North and Midwest felt that they had to give full faith and credit to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that fugitive slaves were property and therefore had to be given back to the bounty hunters who captured them. Cover argues that this kind of injustice put the law into disrepute and also caused great distress to the judges themselves.

To highlight the problem of unjust formalism, in my class of February 15 I brought up the difficulties that liberal states have with absorbing and integrating newly immigrant cultures, not always successfully. I talked about Muslims in Amsterdam, Pakistanis and others in London, Algerians in Paris, Turks in Germany and Somalis in Lewiston, Maine. I also talked about the Hmong experience in Wisconsin.

There is an established legal literature on the problems the Hmong have faced in the American legal system. These problems are not simple and commentators do not always agree. One good example is a comment by Choua Ly in the Wisconsin Law Review in 2001 titled "The Conflict Between Law and Culture: The Case of the Hmong in America," Ly’s article discusses the use of evidence of Hmong cultural practices, including marriage arrangements, as an affirmative defense in criminal cases. Another example is an article by Jennifer Ann Yang, “Marriage by Capture in the Hmong Culture: The Legal Issue of Cultural Rights Versus Women’s Rights” in Law and Society Review at UCSB (2004), which argues against legal recognition of the cultural practice of “marriage by capture”, preferring gender equality for Hmong women.

My class discussion on February 15 was intended to be sympathetic to the Hmong people. I intended to illustrate the inadequacy of legal formalism. My examples of cultural practice were directed against the legal system, not against any immigrant group. My examples were intended to show the disorientation that new immigrant groups can feel when confronting a formalist legal system. My point was that if our formalist legal system treats everyone as if they are the same, new immigrant groups from very different cultures could suffer a form of injustice. The resulting controversy lost this point entirely.

There are important principles at risk here. We have an obligation to our students. We best meet that obligation by showing legal principles at work in difficult and controversial settings. We are all harmed if professors avoid controversial material in deference to some accepted or imposed correctness or an apprehension that a topic may offend sensitivities. The law inevitably must resolve questions that many find offensive. If law professors avoid these questions, they no longer teach law. Most of us want security and to be left alone. Learning to question assumptions and values can be painful. But if professors avoid certain issues because they might offend someone’s sensitivities, we will cease to be a university in all but name.

A politics of personal identity, based on ethnicity, religion, race, or gender, may employ the discourse of rights within the liberal state, and properly so. But, like the formalism discussed in my class of February 15, identity politics can also mask or distort more complex issues. Any claim of right that censures or restricts examination of unpleasant realities is at risk of becoming adverse to the very idea of a law school or university. A misdirected politics of personal identity may in this way advance self interest at the expense of the common good and foreclose any authentic pluralism.

I also think that professors are losing authority, in part by failing to raise these difficult issues. Academic literature has been cautioning about what has been called the twilight of authority. Law students are in danger of becoming mere consumers and not students, law professors of becoming entertainers and not teachers. From what I can tell, legal scholarship is less connected with the practicing bar and courts than it was a generation ago. The judiciary, too, has become politicized. Richard Posner, an eminent federal appeals judge and legal scholar, writes that the public does not have to worry about judicial politics because the appointment process creates a pluralism in the judiciary, and ideological commitments of individual judges are thereby balanced out. Both the fact that he brings up the issue and his justification are disconcerting. They suggest the loss of a neutral judiciary and a loss of trust in our court system, reflected, for example, in the fact that Congress and many state legislatures have tried to take discretion away from the judiciary in criminal sentencing.

I want my students to have the tools necessary to address the kinds of questions that lawyers must confront. I have had a good career, and friends and colleagues who have always, or almost always, offered support and encouragement. So I offer my remarks here in the Rotarian spirit of doing no harm, or as little harm as possible, but recognizing that truth, like learning, may sometimes be painful. Immanuel Kant said about the Enlightenment that it augured a time when our species was capable of mature reflection. We have not progressed beyond Kant on this, and we have not answered Hegel’s challenge on poverty or pluralism.

We have community leaders in this room. We must all take responsibility for our community, including the university, as an environment in which pluralism and authentic respect for others are nurtured. Every generation has to renew its own basic commitments. No one will do this for us but we ourselves. Our institutions are not self-preserving. We are the people in them. We can talk about rights and the rule of law, but rights and laws are not self-executing. We ourselves must fashion institutions that support and preserve these commitments. My
experience should give us all pause and force reflection.

Jews use the word “shalom” to greet each other and to say goodbye. It means peace. Arabs use a variation. I thank you and wish you shalom -- peace.

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Leonard V. Kaplan is a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


Leonard V. Kaplan

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