In my last post, I made some observations, drawn from my recent experience as academic dean, about how the current generation of law students differs from their predecessors. I’d like to draw on that experience again to suggest another change in what we’re seeing from our students: the drift toward a pronounced student preference for what I will call “self-service education.”
I’ll explain what I mean shortly, but for context, think about this for a moment. When I was a kid, service station attendants pumped your gas. Bank tellers processed your withdrawals and handed you your money. Shoe salesmen put shoes on your feet and tied the laces. Purchases were made in stores, and every sale was rung up by a cashier. Tickets for air, train, and bus travel were purchased directly from travel agents or station clerks. Even in cafeterias, human beings put food on your plate. In that era, self-service was a deviation from a universal norm of personal service and assistance, one requiring justification. The elimination of gas station attendants and bank tellers was received at the time as crass profit-mongering at the expense of consumers. Service people were understood to provide value – courtesy, information, experience, expertise, judgment.
Today, things are far different. The capacity to acquire information, shop, travel, and do almost anything without human intermediation is conceived as a right, or at least a new baseline norm. Insistence upon the necessity of human interaction as a condition for completing a transaction is now the deviation requiring justification. At the same time, whether human adjuncts to transactions add value seems to be a matter of deep skepticism. That some people now wander bricks-and-mortar stores shopping with smartphone apps suggests a belief that human salespeople somehow impede rather than facilitate pleasant and productive shopping.
In this environment, is it any wonder that our students arrive expecting to serve themselves, or that they resent the insistence by faculty and administrators that a legal education be acquired through the intermediating offices of actual humans?
Frequently, this predisposition manifests itself simply as a preference that service be delivered without human participation. For example, in the last couple of years, we have heard students criticize our academic advising. This had us scratching our heads. The academic dean is available for academic advising. The dean of students is available. Every member of the faculty is available and willing to offer advice. Each student is matched upon arrival with an alumnus mentor, and the mentor is available. Yet virtually no student seeks academic advice from these sources. My suspicion is that when students tell us that we don’t offer academic advising, what they really mean is that we don’t offer academic advising that they can consume without human contact.
But I also worry that many of our students not only would prefer to acquire as much of their legal education as possible without human interaction, but that many of them are flummoxed by in-person contact with other humans, especially ones they don’t know well. Our director of university counseling services told me a striking story about an increasingly common kind of problem in the dorms (mainly among undergraduates, so far). Two roommates get into a dispute. They are unable to resolve it face to face; indeed, the dispute only becomes more acute as resolution eludes them. Each storms into his own bedroom. An exchange of texts or IMs ensues. They emerge with resolution. Nothing more is said about the incident in person, ever.
All this for me points to two problems. First, educators have done a poor job explaining to today’s consumers of education why in-person contact is an important part of the enterprise. It seems self-evident to us, but that is no longer the case for many of our students. (Indeed, it is no longer the case for many educational policy makers.) Second, I find this trend worrisome as it relates to training future lawyers to function proficiently in professional environments. I’ll address these issues in my next post.