Who Cares?

As noted by Orin below, Marc DeGirolami tries to provide a global answer to that question that often bedevils academics, i.e., who cares?  For the reasons that Orin and the commenters suggest, I don’t think DeGirolami’s answer is successful.

On the other hand, law professors like myself who write about legal history have good reason to be frustrated by the “who cares” question.  Start with the basic premise that law professors are hired to teach and engage in legal scholarship, and that legal scholarship should be judged by the same sort of standards by which other types of humanities scholarship is judged.  Good legal history written by a law professor, in other words, should be basically the same as good legal history written by a history professor.

If a member of a history faculty writes a brilliant analysis of the history of the use of the Magna Charta in American constitutional debate, no one in his department is going to say “who cares?”  The analysis will be appreciated as a contribution to the world’s store of knowledge.

But imagine that a young legal historian writes the same brilliant analysis, which he uses as his job market paper.  At both his AALS interview and his job talks, he is going to be peppered with various versions of the “who cares” question.  His advisors will tell him he needs a “hook” to some modern debate to answer this question.  So he’ll add some sort of strained analogy to a modern constitutional controversy to show how the paper is relevant to current legal debate.  If the candidate appears to have an ideological edge to him based on his resume, many of the professors judging his candidacy will try to decode the paper for secret meanings (“this paper is obviously a subtle attempt to use the history of the debate over the Magna Charta to undermine the legitimacy of Roe v. Wade!”)

In other words, despite the general trajectories of law school faculties from the trade school model to a more standard academic model, many law professors have not fully assimiliated academic standards in judging scholarship, and instead assume (a) that legal scholarship lacks merit if it doesn’t relate to an ongoing controversy; and (b) that all legal scholars should be, and are, motivated by normative concerns, rather than the pursuit of knowledge.

Indeed, it’s still entirely possible at many law schools to get an academic job by writing what one might call “lawyer’s scholarship”: finding an ideologically congenial position about a current controversy in the law, and arguing backwards from one’s conclusion, as if one were writing a legal brief. In other words, to show you’re a good advocate, but not necessarily a good scholar.

I know that many readers of the VC think that law schools should be organized on the trade school model.  That’s a separate debate.  But it strikes me that if law schools purport to be organized on an academic model, a proper answer to the “Who Cares” question should be, “this doesn’t directly relate to any current legal controversy, but it’s an important contribution to our knowledge of ….”  I hope members of hiring committees attending the “meat market” this weekend keep this in mind. (There’s the “hook”!)
UPDATE: Paul Horwitz has related thoughts.

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