»

Law School and Faith

I normally don’t read academic papers but when one has a title like the following, I tend to pay a bit of attention:

Spirituality and Academic Performance at a Catholic Law School: An Empirical Study

What did it study?

This empirical study explores whether a student’s spirituality affects academic performance during the first year of study at the University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota). A spirituality index measured 1) frequency of attendance at religious worship, 2) frequency of discussion of religion with others from different faith traditions, 3) the presence and strength of the connection between God and morality, and 4) the presence and strength of the view that entry into the legal profession is a divine calling.

Professor Scott A. Taylor compared this “spirituality index” to academic performance.

And guess what he found…?

Much to my surprise, I found a negative correlation between strong spirituality and the variance index… This negative correlation suggests that a high spirituality index adversely affects predicted academic performance.

Someone else can dissect the actual paper (PDF) and methodology further, but here’s an idea of the analysis.

The students were grouped into three groups — high, medium, and low spirituality:

The members of the high spirituality group had a mean [first year grade point average] that was 0.29 below their [predicted first year grade point average]. In comparison, the other two groups performed very close to expectations. Although 0.29 may seem like a small number, in terms of class rank at a law school, a difference of this magnitude accounts for a substantial percentage of class rank. So, for example, a student with a 2.65 grade point average after the first three semesters at the University of St. Thomas School of Law would be ranked at 116 of 158 students. By comparison, a student with a 2.95 would be ranked at 85 of 158. This is almost a 20% difference in class standing, or 31 places in the ranking.

So how do you reconcile these results with the mission and methods of a Catholic law school? Taylor offers a host of possible explanations:

A statistical fluke is always a possibility for a correlation that appears to arise from factors other than chance.

Perhaps students of strong faith, having placed God at the center of their identity, can see their place in the communities of worship, love, friendship, family, service, and education in a balanced way. These students have integrated their multiple vocations into their identities and have sought an integrated balance among competing interests. They are prepared to succeed in law school, but they are not prepared to subordinate other important parts of their lives that make up the multiple vocations that Dean [Jerome] Organ has described.

One of my colleagues on the faculty at the Law School suggested that a strong God-centered moral standard may impair a law student’s ability to perform legal analysis on papers and on exams. Under this theory, students with a strong spirituality index undertake legal analysis with a preexisting and inflexible sense of right and wrong. As they look at the facts, they adopt a “right” answer approach based more on moral standards or moral instincts and less on legal standards.

When I was discussing my study with one of my former students, he suggested that a person who is true to Christian teachings would place generosity and charity ahead of self-interest and competition. He thought that a “true” Christian would not have a strong sense of competition (no powerful desire to win in the race for top grades). Instead, such a student would help others by forming study groups, sharing materials, and spending time to help fellow students who appeared to need help. This former student thought that the “true” Christian would be willing to sacrifice limited study time if it meant being true to religious values.

Sounds like a lot of grasping at straws…

Taylor, Scott A., “Spirituality and Academic Performance at a Catholic Law School: An Empirical Study” . California Western Law Review, Vol. 45, 2008 Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1131778.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Catholic, LSAT, law school[/tags]

  • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com The Barefoot Bum

    Sounds like a lot of grasping at straws…

    Actually not. A good scientist must consider all competing explanations, at least all the ones that she can think of and that might be even marginally plausible. Further experimentation can decide between them.

    See Cargo Cult Science, by Richard Feynman.

  • Kate

    Oh man…nothing pisses me off more than people who use causal language (like “affects”) in a correlational study. That’s a HUGE red flag right there. I’ll tear into the methodological flaws of the study later…

  • http://www.gangwon.blogspot.com kwandongbrian

    The answer is obvious: the best lawyers have no souls – this is well known. Naturally, they will score lower in spirituality. If you are spiritual and have ethics and morals (and these are just obviously linked), you will not do well in law school.

  • cipher

    A spirituality index measured 1) frequency of attendance at religious worship, 2) frequency of discussion of religion with others from different faith traditions, 3) the presence and strength of the connection between God and morality, and 4) the presence and strength of the view that entry into the legal profession is a divine calling.

    It seems pretty arbitrary to me to define “spirituality” in these terms. It’s a superficial view, and a decidedly Catholic one at that (“divine calling”). A mystic would define it differently, and a practitioner of an Asian religion might not even acknowledge the concept.

    I can’t be bothered to read the paper, but does he consider the possibility that the non-”spiritual” students are simply smarter?

    Occam, put down the razor.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Sounds like a lot of grasping at straws…

    Why?

    They all seem like plausible reasons to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer were “a little of all of the above”. In particular, the second and third one seemed most likely to me.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Ditto to Barefoot Bum. It’s not called grasping at straws, it’s called good scientific practice.

    I skimmed through the paper. He got his results by comparing predicted first-year gpa with the actual first-year gpa. The predicted gpa comes from LSAT scores and the gpa in previous undergrad programs. Higher spirituality actually positively correlated with undergrad gpa. But it also correlates negatively with LSAT scores. As a result, the predicted first-year gpas are about the same accross all the groups. But the highest spirituality group had significantly poorer actual first-year gpa.

    It seems to me that undergrad gpas are positively correlated with spirituality because such people are more likely to come from religious universities, where they perhaps have inflated gpas. That’s why predicted first-year gpas are inflated for the high-spirituality group. The only question that remains is why the high spirituality group has a much lower gpa. The paper itself suggests that is because of the law school’s “religious affirmative action”. This also would have shown up in the predicted gpas if it weren’t for the inflated undergrad gpas.

    Sounds reasonable to me! The fact that the author, Scott Taylor, already suggested this possibility in the paper tells me that he’s on the ball, scientifically speaking.

  • Darryl

    Stuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuupid.

  • Anfractuous

    “preexisting and inflexible sense of right and wrong”

    Now who would ever accuse “spiritual” types of being inflexible????

  • Maria

    Now who would ever accuse “spiritual” types of being inflexible????

    actually there are many that aren’t. you can be spiritual and not religious-it’s the religion part that’s inflexible.

    that being said, maybe this study is true on the average, but from personal experience, when I was going through college and grad school I was not only spiritual but quite religious, and I did very well academically. and I’ve had several religious friends who have done quite well in law school.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X