Saturday, February 13, 2010

More LSAT Horrors: Composer John Cage

Yes, I’ve heard it many times before: when answering LSAT questions, forget, forget, forget what you know. The LSAT tests your “speed logic,” not your knowledge.

I tried hard to do this when practicing for the LSAT. Then came a question on a practice exam about the 20th-century composer John Cage (1912-1992).

I won’t call John Cage a friend of mine, since I only met him a couple of times, exchanged letters with him, and interviewed him once over the telephone for several hours for a newspaper story. I’ve also attended numerous performances of his music, sometimes performances he even attended or participated in. I’ve read several books he has published: Silence, A Year From Monday, M, and Empty Words. I even gave a lecture about another of his books/lectures, I-VI, at the University of Frankfurt in 1991.

So I’ll call John Cage a colleague of mine. I won’t call myself an expert in his music either, even though I’ve published articles about it and wrote about it prominently in my doctoral dissertation.

So guess what happens one day while taking an LSAT practice exam? In the reading comprehension section, I come across a text about John Cage. If you’ve taken the LSAT, you know the drill: read the text and answer eight or nine multiple-choice questions about it.

The clock was ticking and I had to forget, forget, forget what I knew about John Cage and read the text. I did my best. Then I graded the practice exam, and all of the questions I had answered about John Cage were wrong.

I was furious. Livid. What was this test supposed to determine, anyway? How well we misunderstand the arts so we can successfully become boring, humorless, tone-deaf lawyers?

I fired off an angry email to the publisher of the practice exam. They wrote me back, assuring me they were concerned, but wanted me to explain in detail what I thought the problem with the questions were.

So I sat down and took one question at a time, picking it all apart, trying to explain why the author of the questions had, of course, misunderstood John Cage’s philosophy, but, more importantly, misunderstood the gist of the text itself. Mostly, the text was a general description for the layperson of John Cage’s use of the word “indeterminacy.” Suffice it to say, this is a loaded word that Cage used satirically, tongue-in-cheek.

Here’s what the layperson doesn’t know. Cage was ribbing his arch-rival composer Milton Babbitt, a Princeton music and mathematics scholar who applied Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system to his own music. Schoenberg, who was actually Cage’s teacher and called Cage a “genius,” approached his 12-tone technique methodically, not to mention mystically, but never with the mathematical rigor of Babbitt. In fact, I have always held that Babbitt made a mistake when he used the term “determinacy” to describe his method: one of his mathematician friends must have commented that Schoenberg’s 12-tone row was a “determinant,” which according to the dictionary means something that determines something else (Babbitt’s usage); but, most scientists can tell you that the mathematical definition of “determinant” is a set of elements in which each element is used once without repeating (a concise definition of Schoenberg’s 12-tone row).

The world of musicology may never acknowledge my observation, since I have been blacklisted and squeezed out of that world’s journals and academies many times over. Nonetheless, I must remember the LSAT mantra: forget, forget, forget.

So I did my best to forget, forget, forget. And sure, Cage wasn’t just making a joke, there was a genuine meaning attached to the word “indeterminacy” that applied to his music: he sometimes wrote music using “chance procedures,” such as rolling dice, as if he wasn’t “determining” the outcome--although it has often been said that both Cage and Babbitt were trying to do the same thing: maximize what the listener did not expect. The word “indeterminacy” could also apply to some of Cage’s written scores that either could be changed for every performance (“open form” pieces) or in which the performer had some freedom of interpretation as to what a symbol in the score might mean, if there is no explanation as to how to interpret it.

So the LSAT text was probably by an informed critic simply giving general descriptions of what Cage’s music was and a general idea of what the word “indeterminacy” might mean. The text was nothing unusual, something you might find in a newspaper or magazine. Suffice it to say that what the LSAT people did in making up questions about this text was sacrilegious.

For some reason, the LSAT people thought that Cage was talking about improvisation and jazz when he used the word “indeterminacy.” It is not necessarily egregious to say that Cage’s music involved some improvisation, although that is an issue that could be debated. Cage also influenced many jazz and rock musicians who improvised. What is egregious is trying to claim that Cage’s use of the word “indeterminacy” had anything to do with jazz or jazz improvisation.

This is not splitting hairs. The LSAT people simply misunderstood this text and based almost every question on this misinterpretation. I know I’m supposed to forget, forget, forget, but what on earth is going on here? Perhaps I should have changed my LSAT mantra to stupid, stupid, stupid.

I believe that legal education is on a veritable warpath to take over every other discipline in the scholarly world and reinterpret it their own way. That’s a leap in my logic from this incident involving John Cage, but I’m taking it. Together with other “competitive” degrees outside of science or engineering that are stepping stones into lucrative positions, like the MBA, the JD mill would like to be the king of the academic hill. They set up their law schools like Mensa societies and use their own “speed logic” to weed out the dummies. Unfortunately, in the end, it is cynical politics at its worst.

I tried as hard as I could to explain to the publisher of the LSAT practice exam why it was wrong to conceive that Cage had any interest in jazz, even based on the most liberal interpretation of the text at hand, but I never received an answer back. Meanwhile, onward LSAT soldiers, marching as to war! Perhaps lawyers will some day completely annex the topic of John Cage, distorting it into their own pointless characature, leaving us useless musicologists stewing in our own sour grapes. Obviously, they aren’t even interested in John Cage, but because it is “out there," lawyers must divide it and conquer it.

Then, some sunny day in their future, they can easily (without contention, dissent, or challenge) tell me the answers to my LSAT questions were wrong. They can even make me feel shame for getting those questions wrong. Until then, I proudly declare myself the bad boy of law.


  1. "Legal education" is all about the abstract. You are right when you state that the LSAT people don't care about any of the topics covered in their exams. They just want some "material" to put on the test.

    This also extends to practice. Judges are constantly making "judgments of law" to determine what conduct may or may not be allowed. These legal pinheads determine when a woman can have an abortion; what is the appropriate financial compensation for a man who lost his leg in the workplace; what is an appropriate level of force, when engaging in self-defense; what medical treatment a parent can permit for their children; who can get married; what people believe; etc.

    They DO NOT have any inherent, piercing knowledge of these things. Their training is in negotiating, and abstract thought - not science, economics, theology, etc. But they make judgments in these areas, because judgments need to be made. (How is that for tautology, you lawyers who supposedly and proudly have the market on logic cornered?)

    I like your perspective on the legal industry. It is a little different than those of us in the scam-busting movement. It is a good addition. Thank you.

  2. Yes, Nando, especially "But they make judgments in these areas, because judgments need to be made." This is hitting a nail on the head--a secret nail that reveals itself slowly as you progress in law school.

    Law doesn't care about the truth, only about making a snap decision about an unjust situation. With that in mind, throwing the witch into the river to see if she floats is actually a good test--as long as no one knows any better, judges are solving a social problem (despite what Monty Python might say about it hundreds of years later).

    Still, I'm flabbergasted as to how the LSAT is supposed to measure this. Even newspapers retract their errors. Judges let the errors stand until they are blatant absurdities. You really need to lose your common sense and even your sense of humor before you can really start feeling comfy in this legal system.