Lawyers' Rank Idiocy!
Yesterday, I reported on my incomprehension of a passage in Malcolm Gladwell's article on college rankings, "The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us" (The New Yorker, February 14, 2013), and I'm certain that readers enjoyed my thickheaded predicament.
Today, however, I get to join readers in an appreciation of thickheadedness displayed by others, courtesy of the same Gladwell article:
Some years ago . . . a former chief justice of the Michigan supreme court, Thomas Brennan, sent a questionnaire to a hundred or so of his fellow-lawyers, asking them to rank a list of ten law schools in order of quality. "They included a good sample of the big names. Harvard. Yale. University of Michigan. And some lesser-known schools. John Marshall. Thomas Cooley," Brennan wrote. "As I recall, they ranked Penn State's law school right about in the middle of the pack. Maybe fifth among the ten schools listed. Of course, Penn State doesn't have a law school."Gladwell's anecdote is humorous, but his point is serious. Much of what we know about things we don't really know about is pure prejudice. So much for most rankings.
Those lawyers put Penn State in the middle of the pack, even though every fact they thought they knew about Penn State's law school was an illusion, because in their minds Penn State is a middle-of-the-pack brand. (Penn State does have a law school today, by the way.) Sound judgments of educational quality have to be based on specific, hard-to-observe features. But reputational ratings are simply inferences from broad, readily observable features of an institution's identity, such as its history, its prominence in the media, or the elegance of its architecture. They are prejudices.
By the way, in a case of truth being stranger than fiction, Brennan's 'joke' spurred Penn State to want to possess a law school, which it managed to arrange in the year 2000 by acquiring the Dickinson School of Law -- an institution founded in 1834 and thus twenty-one years older than Penn State itself -- for the simple reason that since its nonexistent law school already had a high ranking, the Penn State administration figured that it might as well acquire an actual law school in order to live up to its fine reputation!
Just kidding . . .