Saturday, March 4, 2017

Testing Prager U's 5-minute semester (Volokh v. Volokh)

Can you get a BS from Prager University? Maybe if you take out the "a," as somebody has already said about the university that is not a university whose curriculum consists entirely of 5 minute videos. In these days of an Iowa legislator claiming a business degree from what turns out to have been management training at a steakhouse franchise, it's a great time to consider the reality of such educational claims.

The videos bear the imprimatur of Dennis Prager, an ideologue about whose tendentiousness need I say more? PragerU promotional material makes this claim: "Taught by some of the best minds in the world, our five minute videos make key concepts accessible and understandable. Give us five minutes and we'll give you a semester's worth of wisdom through our free video courses." [italics mine]

Prager himself is big on blaming the demise of "Judeo-Christian civilization" on Muslims or same-sex marriage, but might not a better sign of cultural and intellectual rot be the PragerU claim that a five-minute video accomplishes the same thing as even a garden-variety semester-long college course? Don't know? Let's check it out.

Suppose that we want to take a semester course on gun rights in the US, but we live in, oh, I don't know, Ulaanbaatar, and such a course is not among those on offer at the community college. So we go down to our branch library and ask the helpful librarian for a semester's worth of online wisdom about gun rights in America that we can absorb in five minutes.

After navigating the reference interview ("Are you a Chicago gangster?"Are you CIA?" "Did you lock her up?") and suggesting "Second Amendment" as a keyword phrase, we wait a while to allow the librarian to do some looking.

With a look of "I don't know if this will help much," the librarian beckons us to the desk and shows us four items that we can view:
  1. PragerU video on the right of gun ownership in the US
  2. An online version of "The Commonplace Second Amendment," a 1998 article from the NYU Law Review.
  3. Sources on the Second Amendment and Rights to Keep and Bear Arms in State Constitutions, a richly-excerpted if slightly-dated bibiliography.
  4. A syllabus from a 2002 law school seminar on firearms regulation.
As it happens, all are the work of Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA whose eponymous blog The Volokh Conspiracy is published by the Washington Post. The librarian asks if that means Volokh is an enemy of the people. Before taking the citations to a workstation to peruse them, we answer that a law professor associated with both Prager and the Post is more likely a double agent.

So, a semester's worth of wisdom in  5 minutes. The video, clocking in at 4:16, is a rabbit, but how wise is it? It is well-produced; Volokh is a compelling presenter; and he answers the question posed by the video's title in a straightforward manner: the Second Amendment does guarantee a right to individual gun ownership, and although the right is not "unlimited, "severe restrictions" would unquestionably violate it. Some time is spent explaining the amendment's characteristic two clauses: its initial, "well-regulated militia" statement of purpose--the "justification" clause--the "operative" clause stating that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The law review article takes 15 minutes to read, so it's clearly not a contender in the "semester-in-5-minutes" event. Still, it has additional information about the amendment's two clauses that give it a decided "wisdom" edge. In fact, two fundamental aspects of the amendment are discussed in the law review article that in one instance does not appear in the video and in another seems to be treated less accurately.
  1. In the article Volokh says, "I believe the justification clause may aid construction of the operative clause but may not trump the meaning of the operative clause." [Italics his.] He offers the example of the Miller case in which possession of a sawed-off shotgun was ruled not protected by the amendment because it had no use as a militia weapon. This seems to us to be critical information. By contrast the video only says that the amendment's right is not unlimited because, well, free speech is not unlimited either. And what about those "severe" restrictions? By what yardstick might that severity be measured?
  2. In the video Volokh asks, "and what about the part of the amendment that says a militia is necessary 'to the security of a free state'? What, the opponents of personal gun ownership ask, does a personal right to gun ownership have to do with that?" He answers that the Founders would have wanted "the people" to arm themselves "as a hedge against tyranny. Citizens who own weapons can protect themselves, prevent tyrants from seizing power, and protect the nation from foreign enemies." On the other hand, the article clarifies that, while the Founders may have wanted the amendment to result in a well-regulated militia, that is not what they enacted. Despite the justification clause, they only insisted on the operative clause. Volokh writes, "Congress might even take steps that might undercut the value of a well-regulated militia to the security of a free state, for instance by creating a standing army." (We picture Patrick Henry spinning in his grave.) The video finesses the question asked by "opponents of personal gun ownership." The article answers it: What does personal gun ownership have to do with the security of a free state? Effectively? Today? Nothing.
Also, since the dynamic between the first point and the second point seems well-suited to a food processor, we like Volokh's law review conclusion that "interpreting legal texts is a mushy business" and think it would look good as a needlepoint sampler, the traditional version of a semester's worth of wisdom.

Moving on to the bibliography, we scan the excerpts and note two things within five minutes:
  1. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) posits a constitutional right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence. File under "Interesting."
  2. Justice Joseph Story, writing in 1833, trumpets the virtues of a militia as opposed to a standing army in peacetime, but worries that a "growing indifference to any system of militia discipline" could "undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights." We joyously apply our new-found knowledge of nomenclature ("justification clause"!) and feel justified in cherry-picking this and throwing it into the food processor of mushy legal interpretation.
As for the syllabus, for five minutes, there in the branch library in Ulaanbaatar, we daydream of sitting for such a course with Volokh. But we snap out of it, realizing that Volokh's syllabus settles the matter by describing what a semester's worth of wisdom on this subject involves: learning about criminological studies and legal arguments pertaining to gun control, understanding how to use social science, and learning how to develop legal arguments on constitutional issues where the SCOTUS "has not yet developed a complex doctrinal edifice."

OK, so QED, we decide: PragerU's claim is bogus. It is not possible to get a semester's worth of wisdom in five minutes. It's self-evident. A body of knowledge that takes a semester to explore can't be explored in five minutes. We feel silly even for testing the proposition, but are grateful nonetheless to the Volokh syllabus for its lucid and persuasive testimony.

But one thing troubles us: does Professor Volokh know that the value of his brilliance and hard work is being badly depreciated by a bogus marketing claim? Would he care? We anticipate a shoulder shrug and a response something like, "I was asked to answer a question, and I did."

Dejected to live in a world where lies in the service of marketing don't matter, we trudge back to the reference desk. It is a slow day, and the librarian is cross-stitching something. We ask if the librarian minds our asking what the cross-stitch will say.

"Not at all. It will be a Mongolian proverb: 'You can't put two saddles on the same horse.' By the way, I found something interesting while you were exploring your false equivalence. Look here, see what Prager U. says its mission is."

On the librarian's computer screen is the Prager U. "what we do" page. Under "Our Mission" it says "The greatest threat to America is that most Americans don't know what makes America great."

I stop there and look at the librarian, who smiles and asks if maybe Prager U. is the enemy of the people because they don't want to make America great again, and wouldn't this make Volokh a double enemy of the people?

"After all, you can't put two saddles on the same horse."

For some reason we have the feeling that this Trumps the meaning of our operative clause.

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