Wasting Genius?

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Over at MoneyLaw, Jim Chen posted a blog on Juniority

a couple of weeks ago in which he quotes Thomas S. Kuhn as noting that:

Almost always the [individuals] who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. . . . [B]eing little commited by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, [these individuals] are particularily likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.

Chen applies this reasoning to the world of legal academia, and worries that:

the creeping insistence on an ever larger set of credentials — clerkships, degrees beyond the J.D., VAPs — necessarily delays the physical age at which law professors begin their careers in earnest. Indeed, if Thomas Kuhn’s observation about scientific revolutions holds true in law, we may be wasting some of the most potentially transformative years of individual careers by delaying would-be upstarts’ full-fledged arrival within the academy.


I share the same concern, but a summer article in Wired magazine — pointing to different types of “genius” — leads me to another, related concern. In What Kind of Genius Are You?, Wired magazine cites to recent work by University of Chicago professor David Galenson that argues that some genius (i..e, creative innovation) arrives early while other genius arrives late – sometimes very late.

[G]enius – whether in art or architecture or even business – is not the sole province of 17-year-old Picassos and 22-year-old Andreessens. Instead, it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers…[This phenomenon] applies to virtually every field of intellectual endeavor.

In other words, while the steady upward-creep in age for new law professors may cause legal academia to miss out on some of our most important conceptual leaps (because the conceptual innovators are plugging along in their two years of clerkships, for example), the myopic focus on hot-new-academics and stars-in-the-field (who were once the hot-new-academics) may cause us to overlook much older academics whose great insights come at a much later stage in their career — when their work may be overlooked because they are not well known.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there are many legal academics who have managed to thrust themselves into the academic spotlight as older, very-much-tenured professors by way of some great work that was deemed to be of a much “higher caliber” than their earlier works.

Are there discernible patterns either way? Do they tend to support or refute Galenson’s theory?

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6 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    Fascinating post!

    I am of two minds on the issue. On the one hand, one might credibly argue that the legal academy needs less “paradigm shifters” and more people willing to do “normal science” within established and robust paradigms. Dan Farber’s paper “Against Brilliance” made a similar point in an entertaining way.

    On the other hand, a purely academic credential-creep can undervalue the insights and contributions of practitioners. Moreover, it can encourage a type of apprenticeship that can lead to “safe” work designed to bolster a failing (or increasingly irrelevant) paradigm of inquiry. Garber has great thoughts on this topic:

    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_scholarly_publishing/v036/36.3garber.html

    Her view resonates with Chen’s point about “credentialization.” And we should also be aware of a potential class bias creeping in as well (it’s much easier to do a PhD with help from parental money, or at least the assurance that relatively wealthy parents can help one out if the right job fails to materialize.).

    Random points:

    This post from Paul Horwitz may be of interest:

    http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2005/10/against_brillia.html

    This article attacks Farber’s thesis in “Against Brilliance”:

    http://dsadevil.blogspot.com/2006/07/in-defense-of-brilliance.html

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    This is a really interesting post, Marcy. I suppose I have some faith that good ideas tend to rise to the top, even if slowly and through word of mouth; subject matter experts will usually read everything in their field, and they’ll remember stuff that they like. The flip side is that more senior scholars seem less likely to market their works effectively, for a range of reasons, and I suspect that this makes it less likely that their quality work will get the attention they deserve.

  3. RCinProv says:

    Genius may well be the the most overused word in the English language. At least among some academics. How many “genuises” do you think teach at law schools?! My guess is that they could be counted on one hand and that identifying them isn’t very difficult.

  4. Deven Desai says:

    It seems that the term genius is being used to do a little more work than intended. The post begins by noting that youth has perceived benefits specifically that someone “little committed by prior practice” (which I take to mean one not entrenched in a school of thought) is more apt or able to see where a discipline fails to account for something and break out of its boundaries. Arguably one who performs such a feat and shifts a doctrine is some sort of genius. Regardless of the term applied that person has accomplished something that I think Kuhn considers revolutionary and in that sense extraordinary.

    As for the second quote, the idea of different ages for genius may be better cast as: regardless of age some people are capable of fostering the extraordinary turn in doctrine that Kuhn suggests. If that is so, the question of when someone enters a formal discipline diminishes in relevance. It may have little relevance at all. As the previous poster suggests, the term genius may be used in Kuhn’s sense only rarely.

    The hard part lies in what Orin notes. When or how do we know that a revolutionary idea is in play? Just because someone is young and tears down idols (which I think Shaw held was what any young person should do with no harm to the work under attack) does not mean that the attack is genius; it may simply be novel and hold our attention for a bit. Furthermore, if one is older and starts to synthesize many ideas from years of experience and reading, one may have a different path to the insights to which that Kuhn points. In either case, the question is will be do people know of the work? As for some scholars not marketing their work, I suppose that SSRN, West, and Lexis in law will mean that people will find a work more often and then Orin’s “faith that good ideas tend to rise to the top, even if slowly and through word of mouth” is not misplaced.

    Still Marcy’s point about the credential issue has teeth. How often is a work (regardless of age) read or not read because we use proxies such as the author, the publication, the school where the author teaches, and so on to guide us? In other words, does the tendency to rely on proxies hinder if not defeat faith in quality rising to the top? My guess is that at one level this question cannot be answered because how would we know that a great idea was missed in the first place which is where Marcy ended her post. On that note thanks for the links, Frank.

  5. Scott Moss says:

    The elephant in the room here is that preferring a young “physical age” violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. I’m amazed how often I hear criticism of an older candidate for being older — not for being too senior a member of the academy, but for being too senior a member of Earth.

    We’ve been recruiting a range of folks from entry-levels to junior profs to senior laterals. The simple fact is that you expect more of an older candidate in the sense that (1) a senior lateral should have accomplished a lot already (which is why few are criticizing, say, Harvard’s recruitment of Cass Sunstein), and (2) an older entry-level should have accumulated a valuable set of experiences.

    But if an older candidate has done good things with her years, then it seems not only illegal but utopian to reject her simply because she has merely a 0.000001 chance to be Einstein, whereas an entry-level has a 0.00001 chance.

  6. Matt says:

    Frank said, “it’s much easier to do a PhD with help from parental money, or at least the assurance that relatively wealthy parents can help one out if the right job fails to materialize.” I’m sure that’s true. But, in my all-too-long experience in grad programs I can say that the percentage of people w/ very significant help from family money is pretty small, almost certainly smaller than in law school, and that essentially no one thinks that mommy and daddy will bail them out if they don’t get a tenure-track job.