Reconciling the letters of the law

October 26, 1997|By Sara Engram

TEST ROBERT Mueller's reading skills by the usual, timed methods and you will conclude, as many of his teachers surely did, that he isn't very smart.

Now 44, Mr. Mueller had his reading abilities tested again in 1994, and found that he landed in the bottom 5 percent of college seniors in his reading comprehension. Untimed, his scores soared to the high average and superior range.

Should he be denied the opportunity to practice law? The New York Times reported last week on Mr. Mueller's case against the California committee of bar examiners, one of many such lawsuits that are helping redefine the nation's approach to disabilities -- and, not insignificantly, also expanding its understanding of diversity.

Dyslexia

Mr. Mueller's 1994 tests diagnosed his problem as dyslexia, a brain characteristic that produces difficulty in decoding the written word. With that diagnosis, and the provisions of the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act, he was allowed double time on the Law School Admission Test.

As a law student, he also got double time on examinations, as he did in 1995 when he successfully took the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, a requirement of the California bar.

But the state bar committee reviewed those results and decided that Mr. Mueller should have been given only time-and-a-half for the test. Under those conditions, he retook the exam and flunked.

Plenty of people will sympathize with the bar committee. After all, in most professions the length of time it takes to accomplish a task is not irrelevant.

But pose the problem another way, and the issue takes on a different cast. Should the difference in time-and-a-half and double time deprive a man who has clearly overcome a lot of obstacles the right to practice a profession he has trained for? More important, should such rules deprive society of the talents of people who clearly are able and eager to make a contribution?

Shouldn't potential clients and employers -- rather than a state committee -- have the right to decide whether the strength of his legal skills outweighs the drawbacks presented by his dyslexia?

As the courts ponder those questions, they need to take into account new insights into the meaning of intelligence, what we mean when we try to decide whether someone is smart.

Harold Gardner, a tweedy Harvard professor who fits all the traditional brainy stereotypes, is helping lead the way. His theories of multiple intelligences are providing the academic underpinning for the common sense wisdom innate to any good teacher.

In any classroom, students will learn best in different ways. Some soak up the spoken and written word. Others learn more easily when music or art or movement brings the lesson home.

The same child who is stumped by the multiplication tables can sometimes master them easily when she learns them as a song.

Gilman School brought Dr. Gardner to town recently as part of its centennial symposium on educational issues for the next century. Dr. Gardner discussed the eight kinds of intelligence he has pinpointed and acknowledged that his theory has critics.

Intelligences?

But, as he noted, his critics have never fully answered his retort when they suggest that musical, spatial or interpersonal intelligences are really skills or talents, not "intelligences."

Fine, he says, then let's be fair and label linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences -- the kinds usually tested to determine how smart a person is -- as merely skills or talents, too.

Dr. Gardner's point is that traditional notions of testing and teaching dwell too much on determining whether people are smart according to traditional criteria, while ignoring the important question of how they may be smart.

We've all heard of whiz kids who had so much trouble getting along with other people they could never hold a job.

Or, conversely, there is an endless supply of examples of those lackluster students who went on to make millions of dollars or rise to leadership positions. Winston Churchill, an abysmal student, is a prime example.

We talk a lot about the value of diversity in business and in life. But most often our definition of diversity is merely skin deep.

Meanwhile, we push to the margins people like Robert Mueller, who have undoubtedly been told many times how stupid they are because they don't read and comprehend on everybody else's timetable.

But who is to say that Mr. Mueller and people like him won't bring new and valuable insights to legal dilemmas?

A Washington lawyer once recounted his experience arguing a case before a three-judge panel of an appellate court. Two of the judges took the lead in the questioning, peppering him with queries that he had anticipated and handled with ease.

When they finished, the third judge, an elderly man who had appeared to be dozing, stirred and cleared his throat a few times. Then he proceeded to ask a simple question, one that had never occurred to the scrupulously prepared lawyer, but one that nevertheless demolished his case with all the force of a grand piano falling to the sidewalk from a 10th floor window.

People with intelligence and insight don't always fit our preconceived notions.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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