Friday, April 13, 2007

A Healthy Fear

The pastor of my church happens to be an avid mountain climber (I'm sure it is painful for him to now be serving a church in Kansas), and his sermons often incorporate stories of his mountain climbing experiences.  A couple of weeks ago, he told a story about a time when he led some novice climbers on a non-technical climb up a mountain he had never scaled before. 

His experience in climbing is extensive, and the mountain did not look particularly challenging.  The night before the climb, he studied the mountain in a cursory way and felt confident that he could lead the group safely to the summit and back.

The climb went well until the group came within a few hundred feet of the summit.  He had been keeping an eye on a thunderstorm that was moving toward them, and he decided that trying to reach the summit would be too dangerous.  A storm in the mountains can be deadly because of lightning, so he knew that they had to get back down the mountain before the storm overtook them. 

Unfortunately, the storm moved more quickly than he expected and cut off the path he had planned to follow back down from the summit.  He then began to look for another way down, but because he was unfamiliar with the mountain, he could only guess which way to go.

He chose a route that looked good, but it led them into a ravine with no cover.  The storm overtook them in the ravine, and they could only crouch down among the rocks as lightening began striking all around them.  He realized at that point that some in the group would very likely be killed in that ravine and that his cavalier approach to the climb had put them there.

The storm finally passed; and, happily, everyone survived; but he was very shaken by the experience.  He had relied on his experience in those mountains to carry him if anything were to happen; but his experience was not enough, and his failure to prepare carefully for the climb very nearly cost several climbers their lives.

The moral (for my purposes) is not that he should have been terrified of the mountain or that he was incapable of leading a group safely to the summit.  Instead, the moral is that he should have had sufficient respect for the mountain to prepare carefully for that particular climb.  He should have known the several routes of escape in the event of a sudden storm, and he should not have found himself and his group stranded in a ravine above the tree line at the worst possible moment.

A few days ago, I suggested that as our students approach the bar exam we should "scare 'em into success."  My pastor's story captures fairly well what I meant by that.  The bar exam, of course, is not a matter of life and death.  That aside, however, it is otherwise very much like a mountain that is deceptively familiar to the experienced climber. 

Like the overconfident climber, law students run the risk of approaching the bar exam with a serious lack of respect for its demands.  Relying upon their training and experience, many assume that they need not prepare deeply and carefully for the exam because it sounds as though it will be like every other exam they have taken in law school.  Many will find out too late that they have underestimated its particular hazards.

On the other hand, like the experienced climber, they need not be terrified of the exam or fear that they haven't the training and experience to conquer it.  Rather, they need to have sufficient respect for the exam to prepare carefully for its particular challenges.  It isn't an exam completely unlike any other exam they have ever taken; but it isn't those other exams either.

If we "scare" them in the right way, we will inspire them to prepare thoroughly for an exam that will present its own particular hazards for the unprepared.  They can all pass the exam, and they need to know that.  They can all fail it, too.  The trick for them is to develop a healthy fear, not so much of the exam itself, but of taking a particular high stakes exam as if experience is all they need. (dan weddle)

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