Monday, March 19, 2012

More False Binaries: Teaching versus Experience

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Apropos of Bill Henderson's post at The Legal Whiteboard on whether "cooperation" can be taught, the Wall Street Journal's special Monday section today featured a series of "yes-no" debates relating to small business, including the question:  "Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?"   Not surprisingly, a Harvard Business School professor takes the affirmative and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist takes the negative.

Yes-no questions of this kind, like law school rankings, make for fun reading and water cooler debate, but ultimately try to digitize the analog.  The problem in both cases comes from confusing (a) the model with the reality, and (b) the data marshalled for argument (the "is" or the "descriptive") with theorist's theory (the "ought" or the "normative").   Indeed, rankings and binary debate questions emphasize the twin problems differently.  With rankings, the more apparent issue is the former:  confusing the model with the reality.  The more subtle issue is whether the theory of the ranking holds water, even as to data relatively immune from manipulation (e.g., is peer reputation a self-reinforcing loop?)  When looking at a debate question like "Can entrepreneurship be taught?", the more apparent issue is the latter.  It's pretty easy to spot the normative focus.  What is more subtle is the falsity of the "yes-no" model itself - as though "teaching," "experience," and "entrepreneurship" have objective definitional boxes such that it's meaningful even to debate the issue in that form.

As I reflect back on my career in corporate management, it occurs to me that part of my job was to puncture false binaries in organizational disputes over things like territories, responsibilities, causation, credit, or blame, often by recasting the question from "us or them," "inside or out," "team or individual," "cash or stock," "employees or shareholders" into another conceptual model (i.e., another theory of the problem).  As I observe my present career in academia, I see the same kinds of false binaries in doctrine, pedagogy, and administration.  Are lawyers, by training, unusually inclined to delight in just such conceptualizations?  No, talk to an engineer - mechanical, civil, electrical, organizational, financial, or transactional cost (pace Ron Gilson) some time.  Nevertheless, are false binaries a problem among lawyers and in legal education?  If so, who is competent to deal with them?

[Cross-posted at The Legal Whiteboard]

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