Climbing Bloom’s Stairway: The Case of Kevin Brooks

Arie-jan Kwak

We need to talk about Kevin. I am not referring to the 2011 movie by Lynne Ramsay but to Kevin Brooks, one of the main figures in The Paper Chase. This successful film by James Bridges, followed by an even more successful television series, was based on a novel by Jay Osborn jr., a novel he wrote when he was a student at Harvard Law school. Especially Professor Kingsfield, a Oscar-winning role by John Houseman, makes a lasting impression. As he explains in the first class of the year Kingsfield teaches contract law using the ‘Socratic method’, and the class-room interrogations by Kingsfield are among the most powerful scenes in this classic movie. Kevin Brooks is one of the first year law students in Kingsfield’s class, his story is a particularly tragic one.

Soon after school starts Kevin Brooks joins a study group. The participators divide the subjects among each other to make summaries, and they discuss the various topics, all to prepare for the exams at the end of the academic year. Although he works very hard, things are not going well for Kevin, and during the year he gets more and more nervous. Kevin is under is under a lot of pressure: his wife is expecting a baby, and his wealthy father in law pays for his education, so failure is no option. However, he flunks all the practice exams. Furthermore, Kevin also fails to finish and share the outlines assigned to him, repeatedly claiming that they are almost ready. Just before the final exams Kevin collapses and does an attempt at suicide. The attempt is unsuccessful but it does spell the end of his time at Harvard. When he is gone, his fellow-students discover that the promised outlines are non-existent.

We are given hints at what is wrong with Kevin, at why he fails in law school. In an especially engaging class-room scene Kevin is interrogated by Kingsfield and, in an effort to divert the attention from the fact that he does not know the answer to Kingfield’s questions, Kevin tells the professor that he has a photographic memory. Kevin seems to be rather proud of this ability, but Kingsfield is not impressed: “A photographic memory is of absolutely no use to you Mr. Brooks without the ability to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears.” Kingsfield’s remark is spot on, the ability to analyze seems to be exactly what Kevin lacks. Indeed, he may able to produce the right ‘photo’ at the right moment and, so to speak, read it aloud, but he is unable to truly understand, let alone analyze, this picture before his mind’s eye. His knowledge is therefore very literal and (therefore) highly superficial.

One is reminded of a scene in another movie. In Rain Main (1988) Dustin Hoffman plays what is sometimes called an idiot-savant: a severely autistic man who is at the same time incredibly knowledgeable on a certain subjects. His younger brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) takes Raymond on a tour but Charlie loses sight of Raymond in the middle of a town somewhere. Raymond walks around alone and decides to cross the street at a pedestrian crossing. When he is halfway the light changes from ‘walk’ to ‘don’t walk’. Raymond may be autistic but he knows how to read and therefore stops walking in the middle of the street. When the light turns green for the cars that are waiting for the crossing, the drivers are confronted with a man standing in front of the row of cars staring at a traffic light. Before things really get out of hand, Charlie finds his brother and pushes him of the crossing on to the pavement. It said don’t walk, Raymond says, it said don’t walk.

Kevin and Raymond can read, but they don’t seem to truly understand. You do not get into Harvard law school when you are severely autistic of course, but on a different level the problem seems very similar: they both remain stuck at the first step of Bloom’s famous pyramid. They are able to reproduce the literal phrases they see or hear – indeed Raymond’s knowledge on certain subjects is mind blowing – and they understand its literal meaning, but they are both somehow unable to read between the lines.

We all know that when you are in the middle of the crossing ‘don’t walk’ means ‘run’! Everybody who sees the bigger picture here, and everybody who knows the purpose these traffic lights serve in the larger context of traffic regulation and policies, understands this. This is the second step on Bloom’s pyramidal ‘stairway’: understanding. Both Kevin and Raymond fail to truly understand what they are dealing with; and that is also exactly why Kevin is unable to produce the outlines he promised. Kevin is unable to relate the bits and pieces of information in his head to a bigger picture; a bigger picture which includes the general purposes, values and policies that are served by the law. Only such an understanding of such purposes can help to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant aspects of a case. Poor Kevin. He cannot distinguish the incidental from the essential, every detail seems equally important to him.

The Paper Chase scenes illustrate that understanding requires the ability to locate a particular bit of information in a larger context of general knowledge and experience. And if you do not see the purpose of it all, the use of the information offered, there is not a chance that you are able to apply the knowledge (the third step on Bloom’s pyramidal stairs) or “to analyze that vast mass of facts between your ears” (Bloom’s fourth step) which is, of course, an essential legal skill. Kingsfield prides himself in teaching exactly this. “You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer,” he tells his students during their first day at law school. The Socratic method (or ‘case method’) is supposed to help the student climb the stairs from mere learning by rote and reproduction to the analysis of the legal materials. Whether Kingsfield truly succeeds in this is another matter, but his Socratic teaching style makes very good television indeed.

Engaging Students: Bridging the gap between abstract law and concrete life events

Bald de Vries

Imagining, hesitating, memorising through metaphors 

One thing that strikes me as a lecturer in law, is the distance between the abstract law and real-life events. Usually we present students with a set of facts, from which they have to distill the legal issue, translated into a question which they seek to answer based upon the law they study in the given course, be it contract law, administrative law or criminal law.

For students, the case study method, although based on facts, makes the law an abstract entity. There is a distance, indeed, and students merely engage in the legal analysis, not concerned with the correlation of law and life. We do not train students to bridge this gap and create in them a sense of empathy and ethical awareness when they engage in addressing legal questions. I say this, as law and legal problems stem from or based in real life trauma, of all sorts, chilling events.

It is this what struck me at the joined meeting of the Dutch Socio-Legal Studies Association and the Dutch Association for the Philosophy of Law, held on Friday 3 November in Utrecht. The theme of this meeting was in exploring new perspectives on active learning and teaching in legal education, from the perspective of jurisprudence and socio-legal studies.

The background to organising the theme is that the field of legal education is changing. On the one hand we see the development of new ‘supra’ legal programmes, in which law is combined with other disciplines, like economy, politics, philosophy and the like. On the other hand, we see new kinds of courses in existing programmes, such as courses like ‘law, society and justice’, or courses such as ‘perspectives on law’ and ‘ law and human behaviour’.

But what is striking, in my opinion, is that these developments see the study of law as instrumental and outward-looking, geared towards preparing students for practicing the law as an abstract entity. But this is insufficient. There is in inward looking aspect of the study of law. Indeed, these developments pose a variety of questions, pertaining to the status of ‘traditional’ jurisprudence and sociology of law courses. How can we engage students in thinking about the law fundamentally, both philosophically and sociologically? How to bridge the distance between the (perceived) abstract nature our disciplines and the imagination of our students?

Maksymilian del Mar addressed this fundamental question in a fundamental way, in his keynote address, setting the scene for the day. He stressed the importance of using metaphors and artefacts in order to allow the suspension of judgment. It enables, first, to submerge in the facts of a case and, second, to confront one’s prejudices and assumptions. This reflexivity strengthens, in the end, the legal judgment of students, as they realise the impact of law and the facts beneath it. It enables them to live the scenario the parties (real people) actually experienced.

This message translated in a variety of workshops in which lecturers showed how to engage and challenge students in thinking about law. Our Turkish guest lecturer, for example, confronts students with their prejudices about detainees in bringing them into contact with them. She uses the metaphor of the mirror first, challenging them to inspect what they see and don't see in the mirror, before confronting them with prisoners - teaching them both. The task is to explore to see the person and consider whether justice is done, or not. In other words, what Gülriz Uygur points to is the importance of ethical responsibility and the ability to emphatise.

In a way, Uygur’s point relates to the importance of observation and imagination. Law has an impact on social life and social life has an impact on law. Our students should be aware, already in their studies, that they carry responsibility - that they will be engaged in making decisions that impact upon the lives of people. Our type of courses can open up our students and contribute to the inward looking aspect of studying law, call it Bildung.