You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you’ll leave thinking like a lawyer.
The Paper Chase
After being encouraged, and nearly begged to watch The Paper Chase I took some time to do it. Movies made in the 1970’s (and earlier) are more patient than those produced today. This film takes its time establishing setting and events. Many scenes in the film take place without music, and minimal action. This style of film making echoes the reality of ordinary life. I associate the look and feel of 60’s-70’s films with the way existence ought to be. Harvard in 1973 seems like the place to be.
As someone who has spent many years in post-secondary institutions, attending lectures and seminars, writing papers and exams, and dealing with professors and fellow students I’d like to share some thoughts about my own relationship to this film. I did not attend law school, or an American university but there are several points from the film that I find fascinating. The first is Hart’s understanding of the 3 levels of students in his classes. The first are those who sit at the back, barely keep up with their work, and have given up on the program. The second “echelon” includes engaged students, who desperately want to do well, but are afraid to raise their hand to answer a professor’s question. The third are those that Hart aspires to be. He calls them the volunteers because they have the courage to speak in front of the class. As a child and teenager I was always in the latter group. I was never afraid to answer a question because I assumed I was correct (usually I was). Once I reached university, however, I alternated between the second and third depending on the class. It is interesting to me that I was intimidated by my peers and by seemingly superior academics. If you consider that most of my classes were philosophical in nature, and I was as well read as anyone, there was no reason to hold back my thoughts and opinions. Of course the actual problem is fear of rejection and embarrassment. Very few people enjoy being wrong, and the pressure to appear smart is enormous at any school. What the film eventually shows is that that fear, along with the desire to impress our professors and peers is a ridiculous part of a self perpetuating ritual. I won’t be the first to suggest that academic life creates exactly the type of environment that manifests those feelings. I think it probably helps create harder working people, and inspires ideas that might not otherwise exist.
The second issue appears during a class discussion. Professor Kingsfield berates one of his students for having a photographic memory without the ability to analyze the data. I have had conversations with some educators who dislike the current Ontario curriculum because it seems to create students who are capable of adsorbing and dispensing large quantities of data without the maturity and creativity to analyze that information. For better or worse, university students, particularly in the arts, succeed by taking the information they are given and then expanding on it by making unexpected connections. I’d like to think that our world rewards inspiration, and often it does. I think creativity is rarely identified as an important quality in an academic. Although this isn’t what Kingsfield was talking about, the imagination is a useful tool for advancing any field of thought. Raising students who can think creatively helps to improve ever field of human endeavour rather than simply perpetuating the knowledge we already have.
The final idea I want to pull out of the movie is the central story of rational talk versus irrational action. The movie insists that the law student is always interested in the rational while the free spirited daughter of the famous professor espects people to give in to their irrational beings. Hart comes to embody both of these impulses as he works frantically to excel in his exams, but throws his grades into the ocean. The interesting thing abu this to me is that in my field of study, religion, we are often confronted with applying rational thought processes to ideas that were created out of human passion. As much as the social sciences attempt to quantify human society, thought, and activity, we sometimes rely on abstract and unorthodox terms to capture the truth. People’s actions are determined by a bizarre mix of instinct and rational thought. Finding the healthy balance, like Hart, is probably the way to go. Although he threw his grades away, he likely continued his education.
I enjoyed this film for its mood, subject matter, and the conclusions it draws about life. The gumpy professor motif has been used in other films, perhaps never in such a rich and compelling way. Kingsfield is not just mean and demanding, he has several more layers. I have never had a gruff teacher in my university career. They have always been friendly, encouraging, and kind, so I guess I’m lucky. At least is Hollywood is to be believed.