Slouching toward dinosaurs. . .

I have had several conversations lately with people my age (60)  about whether and how age is changing them.  There are those who hold to the “age is only a number” mantra, and those who claim to be perpetually 42 in their own mind’s eye.  I am not one of them.  I feel my age; not my old age, but I am even starting to understand that a little better too.

Unbelievably to me, one of the effects of age is that I am starting to understand and even sympathize with dinosaurs.  Not real, but metaphorical ones.  The dinosaurs in my world are found mostly among my colleagues at work.  Change has come to legal education and the practice of law; change has been largely ignored but now, with its drastic economic consequences, can be ignored no longer.  And so  in one of the most tradition-bound settings in the world–law school–people are seeking to reinvent legal education for the future.  Or hold fast to the past.

I have been a law professor for 32 years, and spent all of my time not just railing against tradition, but viciously beating it back at every possible turn.  I  developed an educational program within the law school that used alternative teaching methods that were grounded in actual practice experience and adult learning theory.  What a grenade to have thrown in such an environment, complete at times with the blowback inevitable to the grenade-tosser.  Among the tradition-bound, my efforts, even when successful, and my thinking, even when clear, have been dismissed.  “Not what legal education is for. . .” the traditionalists  have grumbled over decades.   And still they grumble louder, because the tide is turning, and we, believers in this particular grenade, are becoming more mainstream. 

You might think I would be gleeful.  I am . You might think I would gloat.  I don’t, much.  Because as my own philosophy and pedagogy move ever more toward their rightful center, there is a new generation of grenade-tossers.  They want legal education to take place on screens, individual by individual,  in front of keyboards or touch pads, from remote locations.  So 21st century, they exclaim, not to mention cheaper. More democratic, as it allows people who cannot afford a 3-year campus experience to earn a law degree.  No worries, they say, the technology actually allows the individuals, home alone with their computer screen, to “talk” with each other online.  Besides, we can have them come face-to-actual-face for a whole week when we bring them to campus in the spring. 

Shouldn’t lawyers be able to relate to real people, like classmates, and professors, and well, . . .clients?  I recall all of those studies, real or made up, that say that young people are losing their social interaction skills because they are glued to their screens.  I think about how carefully I try to train my students to conduct interviews with a warm bodied-client across from them, or to negotiate while reading the other side’s facial expressions and body language. Or simply to sit in a room and listen and speak appropriately with other humans.  Not to worry say the new grenade-tossers, not all that important.  When I press and ask how training by screen will produce lawyers who can interact in a real-two-or-more-humans-in-the-same-room professional setting, they say cheerfully, who says the practice of law will take place in settings requiring human interaction?  Maybe we will all practice via screen.  Better brush up on your screen skills, and better yet, make sure your students have them;  if they don’t, the education you are providing them may make them unsuitable for practice in the (near) future. 

Back to the the dinosaurs who have griped about me and mine.  They used to annoy me.  I am now feeling sympathetic, and this is the surprising part, because I am becoming one of them.  A different dinosaur, maybe, of a different era, whose inability or unwillingness to adapt is based on different changes in the environment.  But the life’s arc, from grenade-tosser to mainstream acceptance to the warding off of the next generation of grenade-tossers. . .I am starting to see parallels in the lives of those grumpy old men and my own.  Not that I consider myself grumpy, because, yea I believe I am right.  All dinosaurs, and dinosaurs-in-the-making, do.

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They also serve who only stand and applaud. . .

I frequently bemoan my lack of artistic ability.  Maybe, and just maybe,  I could learn to be a good writer.  But all other talents elude me.  I feel I have the soul of an artist, but have no musical ability.  I cannot sing.  I can’t paint, or draw.  I cannot find my way around a camera, except the one on my cell phone, and learning to use that was a monumental discovery. I place things in my home because I think they “go there,” not because I have any understanding of line or color.  I have never been nor will I ever be known as a graceful and expressive dancer.  So, yes, no false modesty, I definitely have nothing in the way of artistic competencies.

In a late-into-the-night conversation with my brother-in-law at our family summer house, he passed along some wisdom that he had received . In a similar conversation he had had with a friend , his friend had said “Someone has to applaud.”  Real artists may create with no eye at all toward a future audience, but applause often comes anyway.  Handclapping, standing ovations, positive reviews, a simple nod of appreciation.  Someone stopping, moving back step by step in front of a painting, looking, and looking some more.  A hand reaching out and stopping just short of touching a sculpture.  A shouted brava! to the finest performer on the stage.  A moment that you get to share in the artistic vision by being the one who not only sees/hears/feels but appreciates.

I have had formidable moments of appreciation.  During one trip to Paris, my husband and I went to the Grand Palais to see Leviathan, an exhibit by Anish Kapoor (better known in the US for the “bean” sculpture in Chicago).  We were so intrigued that we sought out a gallery with a smaller exhibit by Kapoor that had garnered almost no attention.  It is beyond me to find an adequate vocabulary to describe clearly the art in that gallery; it is equally impossible to express the enormity of the feelings and reactions I experienced in immersing myself in Kapoor’s creations.

Great art experiences are expected if not required in Paris.  But I experience them in more quotidien settings too.  I listen to British tenor Alfie Boe on my way to work every morning.  There are notes that he sings that land on my ear in a way that grabs every fiber of my attention.  The same for Leonard Cohen’s lyrics.  Judi Dench’s acting in practically anything.  A painting by my friend Jo Tate of a woman in green that smacks me upside the head with its confidence every time I look at it.

I am envious of the ability to create like that, and resigned that even in retirement with time to dabble, I will never be an artist.  My role  is to receive.   I am a profound appreciator, and that appreciation gives me great joy.  Someone has to have the job of noticing, understanding, and recognizing.  That job is mine.  Assuming you are lacking in artistic talent, it could be your job too.