September 30, 2009
The Professor-Driven Curriculum
One of the classes I teach is White Collar Crime. It is a three-credit class, one credit more than my sentencing class, appeals and habeas, and juvenile justice.
Many, if not most, schools offer a class on White Collar Crime-- it is a sexy, intriguing area of the law with real societal importance and great stories embedded within the cases. Questions of greed, morality, celebrity, and the culture of affluence twist through much of the reading and analysis in the field. Moreover, those who practice in this area tend to be high-paid partners in large firms rather than the solo practitioners we find in the rest of criminal law. It's no wonder, either-- there is real money in defending or consulting on these issues. One firm, for example, billed 1.5 million hours in connection with the recent SEC settlement with Siemens (including the hours of the accountants they retained).
Few if any the students in my class will ever have a significant practice in prosecuting or defending major white collar crimes. My WCC class may turn out to be one of the least practical classes that they take.
Meanwhile, my school does not offer a similar class in Narcotics law, which also covers a sexy, intriguing area of the law with real societal importance and great stories embedded within the cases. Importantly, nearly all of my students who go into criminal law will handle drug cases. This class, if it existed (and I don't know if it exists anywhere), would be one of the most relevant classes a future prosecutor or defense attorney could take.
Given the similarities between this real and imagined class, why is it that the one covering material less relevant to my students' futures is a part of the canon, while the more-relevant class is not?
My hunch is that part of the answer is that America's law professors are more comfortable teaching about white-collar crime than drug crime. We professors tend to come from a background where we have a better understanding of securities transactions than meth sales, and often our practical experience is at exactly the type of firm which does that kind of work.
Is it right that the professors' interests and backgrounds shape the curriculum, rather than the needs of the students? It does strike me as a production-driven model (that, is the Soviet "you will consume what we make") rather than the consumption-driven pattern Americans usually prefer.
For what it is worth, any blame at my school for not offering narcotics law is mine-- it never occurred to me until now to propose that class to our curriculum committee.
-- Mark Osler