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MLK Day Keynote Speaker Lani Guinier Discusses Collective Intelligence

Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School Professor and civil rights attorney, focused on race, gender issues and leadership as the keynote speaker at Phillips Academy’s twenty-first celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past Monday. Guinier began her speech with anecdotes from the Montgomery bus boycott. She described Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger and King’s speech to the community after the incident. Guinier said that the two examples “suggest the importance of leadership that critically reframes people’s understanding of the status quo.” “Leadership actually comes from the people who are younger, the people who are just doing what comes naturally to them,” Guinier said, adding that she believes there will be more female leaders than male leaders in the 21st century. She said that she didn’t speak “to appeal to the vanity of the young women in [the] audience” but rather because she believes that the 21st century is a time of “collective rather than individual intelligence.” “[Collective intelligence] is about creative problem solving, taking advantage of the talent available to you from diverse problem solving groups,” she said. Guinier has tried to reframe her law classes at Harvard to fit the concept of collective intelligence. For example, Guinier gives group exams, seeing exams not just as an “opportunity to give a grade but as a way to learn.” She stressed that individual intelligence cannot be measured by standardized tests or other forms of written work. When one of Guinier’s female students conducted a survey of the student body and found that “women were not happy in law school and did not participate in class to the same extent [as men],” she set out to find out why the women felt marginalized. Guinier’s research determined that the male and female applicants were equally qualified. In addition, after examining the entry credentials of the students, Guinier found that LSAT scores were a poor indicator of students’ grade point averages in law school. Citing an article on collective intelligence, Guinier said that one of the best ways to measure collective intelligence is by the number of women in the group. “It’s not because the women are better on the LSAT or some other test,” she said. “It’s because the women, whether [for] genetic or cultural [reasons], are more likely to listen to what other people have to say. It means that [they] are in a position to hear a diverse set of perspectives and bring that information together in order to solve a problem.” Guinier said, “By virtue of having people who look at the world differently, you have access to a collective knowledge base that allows you to take an advantage of each of the people in the [group].” Guinier shared an anecdote of a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who noticed that his African-American calculus students were not performing as well as his Chinese-American students. The professor discovered that Chinese-American students were discussing calculus in both social and academic settings, while African-American students were only discussing calculus in academic ones. Guinier, however, said that the professor should have thought of the problem in different terms. She explained that the professor’s problem was not to improve the grades of the African-American students, but rather “to take the lesson of the comparison [between the students] and rethink how he taught calculus to everyone.” “We need to think more about solving problems together, and in order to do that, we need to be able to listen to other people who are different than we are. The 21st century is when we can take advantage of spirit, creativity, and imagination of all the people we have access to,” she said. At a luncheon following the ASM, Guinier further discussed the issue she raised during her speech, adding that 42 percent of class discussion is dominated by a mere ten percent of the students in the class—80 percent of whom are male. “It shows that men are dominating, but only a few men, so it’s not just about men versus women,” she said. “This is not strictly a gender problem.” Guinier was inspired to work in social law after seeing Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American female lawyer to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court, escort James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, to class—thereby desegregating the school. “There was a mob of people who were furious at what was happening, and she just kept her eyes focused and walked through this mob without seeming fazed by it,” Guinier recalled. “I admired her courage, but I also saw that there was [a] black woman doing this, so I thought I could be a lawyer.” She enjoyed working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) because she felt confident and competent in her work. “When you can work with other people who are looking at the problem from a different perspective and are willing to treat your questions respectfully… you feel really energized,” Guinier said. She made the transition to teaching after the University of Pennsylvania Law School offered her a job. Guinier had also grown tired of commuting to New York City from Philadelphia, where her husband worked. Guinier doubts she will return to being a litigator. “I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the capacity of litigation to make social change because it’s so lawyer-driven,” she said. “One of the big critiques I have for myself, as well as for the other LDF lawyers, is that we tended to see problems as legal cases as opposed to as problems.” Guinier said, “We would take what was relevant to making a legal case and push it in the court, and it may or may not have solved the actual problem. By doing that, we also lost the power of the activists in the community. It demobilized the people who brought the problem to our attention in the first place.”