Annual Midway Dinner Speech

In preparing for this august occasion, I asked one of my colleagues, a veteran of these events, “What is one supposed to say at the Midway Dinner?”  This colleague proposed three main themes:   first, encourage the students to enjoy the rest of law school; second, encourage the students to take classes “across the midway,” in other units of this great university; and third, encourage the students NOT to forward e-mails from the Law School to the “Above the Law” blog.

Let me take these charges up in descending order of importance.

First, as many of you know, as part of Dean Schill’s new Law and Economics 2.0 initiative, the Law School will be instituting a new automated cost-benefit analysis of all e-mails sent from “UChicago” addresses.  This program, designed in consultation with U of C alumni now working at the National Security Agency, is able to assess the costs and benefits of any e-mail sent from a UChicago address, and to immediately block any e-mail where the costs outweigh the benefits.   Dean Schill kindly permitted me to examine the filtering algorithm, which is as subtle as it is powerful.  Certain words and phrases will result in immediate deletion of the e-mail—for example, the salutation “Dear David Lat” or the phrase “recycled exam questions,” or a subject-line that reads “check out this e-mail from Dean Gardner”.  Rest assured:  our Law School has a longstanding commitment to freedom of expression.  This new e-mail filtering system is not an attempt to censor the expression of unpopular opinions, only an attempt to correct for a systematic failure in the marketplace of ideas.   It is, I assure you, welfare-enhancing.   Really.

Second, and more seriously, you should enjoy the rest of law school!   It’s a fair bet that for the vast majority of you here, the next year and a half will be your last opportunity for sustained research and quiet reflection on issues and topics that engage your intellectual passions.  To be sure, somewhere between five and fifteen of you will end up doing what I do, though hopefully without bad after-dinner speeches.  But most of you will enter legal and business careers with their own intellectual and emotional rewards and challenges, but which won’t afford you as much leisure as you will have over the next four quarters to be seized by a question or problem, to go read about it, reflect on it, discuss it with fellow students and faculty, and then write about it.  I hope you will seize that moment. 

And that brings me to the third, and really the primary, theme of any Midway Dinner speech:  namely, to remind you that this Law School is part of a university, and not just any university, but one of the great universities of the world, whose extraordinary array of intellectual offerings are available to you for another four quarters, to enrich and broaden your legal education. 

Now any of you who edit a journal know, of course, that a statement to the effect that Chicago is “one of the great universities of the world” requires footnote support.   And while most of my colleagues have normal hobbies—Martha Nussbaum, for example, is a devoted White Sox fan, Douglas Baird is a gourmet, and Todd Henderson is the world’s leading collector of preppy clothing—my hobby is different, but perfect for the occasion:  I like to rank things.  But when it comes to ranking whole universities, I can’t really match the existing competition. 

A university in Shanghai, for example, has produced for many years a ranking of the world’s best universities.  According to the most recent Shanghai ranking, the University of Chicago is the 9th best university in the entire world—behind Cambridge, alas, but ahead of such laggards as Oxford and Yale, not to mention the Universities of London, Tokyo and Paris.  Now the Shanghai folks use criteria—such as citations to scholarship, publication in certain science journals, and Nobel Prizes—that are heavily tilted towards the natural and social sciences.  (Chicago, by the way, is #2 in the world according to the Shanghai folks in the social sciences, so now is the moment for you to check out the economics or sociology or anthropology offerings!)  Excellence in the humanities—Chicago has, for example, top-rated History and English Departments—counts for very little in the Chinese rankings, alas.  However, the Times of London, with a somewhat different methodology for ranking universities, also says Chicago is 9th in the world, but ranks it 3rd in the United States among universities with law schools.  The Times also denominates U of C as #3 in “arts and humanities” subjects in the world, which also sounds darn impressive.

But what, in the end, does all this mean to you, law students, half way through your professional education, and less than 18 months away from bar exams and your professional careers?

I took a look at the Spring quarter offerings this year, with an eye to answering that question.  We all know, after all, that rankings are crude proxies for actual educational experiences.  But when a university like Chicago gets high marks across the boards, from many different evaluators, it actually is a fairly reliable indicator of something to be treasured and enjoyed:  namely, the presence of scholars and thinkers who are regarded by their peers as among the best and most able in their specialties.   This is your opportunity to take advantage of the fact that these very talented individuals are here and teaching and available to you, to either complement your professional interests, or simply to enrich your minds.

You might, for example, venture over to the Booth School, where Richard Thaler, who essentially invented the field of behavioral economics and who is often mentioned as a likely winner of a Nobel Prize in Economics, will be teaching “Managerial Decision Making” this Spring, a course that teaches you both optimal decision-making when time and information are plentiful, but also examines “errors ‘normal people’ often commit when they make decisions intuitively,” and explores “how to overcome these errors and thereby become ‘less normal,’ namely, smarter than the average person.”  

If that sounds too practical for you, then head over to the Philosophy Department, where a talented new assistant professor Ben Laurence, who was the Law & Philosophy Fellow at the Law School last year, will teach a course on “Political Liberalism,” namely, the “view that the principles of justice must be acceptable to reasonable citizens who disagree with one another on basic questions of morality and religion.”  You’ll get a chance to read Rawls and Nussbaum, as well as other important contemporary political philosophers on these foundational questions about justice in a pluralistic society.

If your interests lean towards both the practical and the international stage, then you’ll be pleased to know that Chicago is a leading center for the study of international politics, and one of the leading lights in that field, Robert Pape—whose work on the causes of suicide terrorism has been widely covered in the popular media—will be teaching a course on American national security policy in the post-cold war world this Spring, focusing on such issues as “nuclear strategy” and “the future of war and peace in the Pacific Rim.”  The History Department is also, unsurprisingly, a source of many offerings likely to complement your legal studies.  For example, Thomas Holt, the James Westfall Thompson Professor of American and African American History, will be giving a lecture course on “Race and Racism in American History,” while Jane Dailey, a leading authority on the history of Jim Crow, will be running a “colloqium” course of readings on the history of the American South from 1865 to the present, with a special focus “on political and legal history, including but not limited to the African-American freedom struggle and resistance to it.”

Of course, you might simply decide to take something unusual and fun, whether or not it taps into your legal interests.  The distinguished classicist Shadi Bartsch, for example, is offering what looks to be a fascinating seminar this Spring on “the practice and the theory of metaphor in pagan and early Christian texts,” with readings from Aristotle to Augustine “and beyond.”   If I were a student again, I would almost certainly take the “History and Philosophy of Biology” course being offered by Robert Richards, the preeminent intellectual historian of Darwin and 19th-century science.  This course will range widely over “the history of biology from the Hippocratics and Aristotle in the Classical period” “to Darwin and neurobiology in the last two centuries,” examining such issues as “teleological causation, the nature of biological explanation, the physiological of sensation and perception” and even eugenics.

This brief overview barely scratches the surface of what is available on the other side of the Midway.  There is truly “something for everyone” at this university, and I hope all of you will find an opportunity to sample the intellectual riches available to you not only inside the Law School, but outside it over the remainder of your academic career here. 

Thanks for your kind attention, and enjoy your desserts!