Autobiography, Learning Disability, and the Turn to the Law

I spent most of grade school attending the remedial classes for the learning disabled because I was, well, learning disabled. For whatever reason, the gods had not bestowed upon me an ease with letters and words. I simply could not read. A lot of very patient teachers tried all sorts of things to teach me, but none of them seemed to work. Phonetics was totally lost on me. Finally, a woman whose name I only remember as Sally came up with a simple strategy for teaching me to read: brute memorization. She had a set of flash cards on which were printed the 600 or so most commonly used words in the English language. Day in and day out she drilled me on these words. In the end, I learned to read words as pictographs. The results of this can still be seen in my spelling. I can’t really think that well about how letters interact with one another to form words. I simply look at the word in completed form and try to figure out if it more or less looks right. I am still a very slow reader. (The up side is that I think that I remember more of what I read than most.)

Despite my adventures in the learning disabled class, I lived in a hyper-literate home that was bursting at the seams with books. (Most of which seemed to be on Mormonism, art history, tribal art, or late Victorian literature.) Each night my father would religiously read to me. Despite my own illiteracy, we went through the entirety of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings. (As well as — this was my father after all — books on the history of architecture.) Sometime about age 11 or 12, the pictographs on the pages of the books began to form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, and I could read. I wanted to return to the world of fantasy that my father had read to me earlier. So I read Narnia and Middle Earth on my own. From there I went on to Susan Cooper and a host of forgettable juvenile fantasy authors.

At some point in time, my interest in fantasy worlds of knights and swords morphed into an interest in the real world of knights and swords. I started reading historical fiction, but I soon found that actual history was frequently more interesting than the fictitious version. I started with biography, which can be the most novel like of history. I have very vivid memories of reading Catherine Drinker Bowen’s John Adams and the American Revolution in middle school, and deciding that I wanted to be John Adams when I grew up. (Although not quite as short and fat.) I went through phases, picking particular periods and then reading a series of books on them. I did the Romans (mainly the late Republic and the rise of the Empire), the Plantegenets (especially Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, but also Crecy and Agincourt), the Age of Discovery (mainly stuff by Samuel Elliot Morrison), the American Revolution (Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute and others), and the Civil War (Shelby Foote and Carl Sandburg).

From history I moved into politics. During my final years of high school I became a Watergate buff, developing this odd simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Richard Nixon. I discovered and began reading The Economist (aka the best news source in the English language) as well as opinion glossies like the The National Review. By my freshmen year at BYU, I was the only person (that I know of) in Helaman Halls with a subscription to The New Republic. I arrived at college wanting to study political philosophy. Due to historical accident, however, the classes that I wanted to take were divided between two departments — political science and philosophy. I enrolled as a double major and set to work. The political science major forced me to study a bunch of social science, which was not something I was particularly interested in. I did find, however, that I liked economics.

I hoped to become a philosophy professor, but three experiences led in a different direction. First, shortly after my mission I had a conversation with the chair of the philosophy department (Cody Carter) who told me in the bluntest possible terms that it would be a very bad idea for me to try to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. Second, I came to realize that I probably did not have what it takes to be a good philosopher. I was too easily side tracked into intellectual interests in history, politics, or economics. Furthermore, in the heavily continental-dominated world of BYU philosophy, I imagined graduate work in philosophy as prolonged confinement with Being and Time, a prospect that sent shivers up and down my spine.

The third and most important event, however, was that I discovered the polygamy cases. As part of my political science degree, I took an undergraduate class on constitutional law taught by Paul Edwards. Originally, Edwards had planned to spent a day or two on the religion clauses of the first amendment and then move on. However, at the last minute he decided to focus in on the series of 19th century decisions dealing with polygamy — Reynolds, In re Snow, Late Corporation, etc. Earlier, on my mission I had read where B.H. Roberts described the antipolygamy crusade in his Comprehensive History of the Church. Seeing those battles played out in the pages of the U.S. Reports, I was hooked.

I spent most of my undergraduate career surrounded by large numbers of people who described themselves as “pre-law.” I had academic ambitions, however, and I always felt a sense of vague intellectual superiority to those who were bound for the grubby world of professional school. The polygamy cases, however, opened my eyes to the possibilities of studying law. I was interested. I managed to work as a research assistant for two law professors as an undergraduate to “test the waters.” The summer before my senior year, I was offered a chance to work as a researcher in the Warren Burger Archives at the College of William and Mary, going through internal Supreme Court documents on some of the key religion cases from the 1970s and 1980s. I took a semester off from BYU and moved to Williamsburg. During those four months in the Tidewater, I made two decisions. First, I decided to marry a graduate student in Washington, DC. Second, I decided to go to law school. I studied for the LSAT in Williamsburg and actually took the test on the campus of William and Mary.

I had finally found a discipline that perfectly matched my own intellectual dilettantism. The rest is history. Indeed, life, in a bit of improbable enplotment, has brought me full circle, and I now teach law at the school where I made the turn to jurisprudence.

37 comments for “Autobiography, Learning Disability, and the Turn to the Law

  1. August 30, 2006 at 11:33 am

    “I imagined graduate work in philosophy as prolonged confinement with Being and Time, a prospect that sent shivers up and down my spine.”

    Those were shivers of excitement, Nate! You totally misunderstood what your mind was trying to tell you. Ah well.

  2. August 30, 2006 at 11:35 am

    Russell: There is no mind. Only Dasein….

  3. Duane
    August 30, 2006 at 11:38 am


    You have succeeded admirably in, among other things, not being short and fat.

    I have no doubt you have intellectual firepower to spare, but I take from your post that within academe, intellectual curiosity is more important than raw IQ.

  4. Greg Call
    August 30, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    It makes me feel slightly better about my similar conversation with Cody Carter to know that even the bright kids got the same speech.

  5. mami
    August 30, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    I loved this post. I hate it when people equate fast learner with brilliance. Maybe that’s true, but slow learners can be just as intellectually stimulated and brilliant

  6. bbell
    August 30, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    What I take from this is the importance of parents who are involved with and help their kids out like with reading in your example. Kudos to yours Nate

  7. gst
    August 30, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    I now feel bad about teasing you in the past for your spelling. I’m sorry.

  8. Heather O
    August 30, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    What a bookworm. How on earth did you ever talk that hot graduate student in DC into marrying you. She must have liked your car….

    And your spelling still sucks.

  9. August 30, 2006 at 1:06 pm

    “How on earth did you ever talk that hot graduate student in DC into marrying you.”

    I think that reading Shelby Foote was what did it. Hot graduate students dig military history.

  10. Brad Kramer
    August 30, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    I actually had the good fortune of meeting your father this summer. I participated in a seminar at BYU on 19th century Mormon intellectual history and a group of my fellow fellows and I spent an afternoon with him at the museum. He seems like a tremendous guy and I have no doubt that he was (and is) a wonderful father. bbell is right about the importance of parents being involved with the learning of their kids. I also spent some time this summer with a former mission comp and his family in Othello Washington. He described how everyone in that small town where he was raised bemoaned the quality of public education there and many sought to send their kids to neighboring towns. His parents kept their kids there, believing that no degree of quality of formal education could compensate for parental failure in participating in their kids’ education — but that parental involvement could compensate for the failings of public schools. All of my friend’s adult siblings are college graduates, one of his brothers just graduated from Harvard law and one attends Juliard and just won the Gina Bachauer piano competition.

    On a different note, I find myself in a similar situation as you. Reading Nibley as an undergraduate (and a new parent reassessing his priorities) purged me of a desire to continue down the path I was then on — to the prestige and comfort of being a high-priced corporate lawyer. Instead, I turned to academia, spurning the idea of anything like attending law school or (gasp!) business school — or any professional school for that matter. I finished my undergraduate work and applied for grad school in American history. Then I came under the tutelage of an advisor that had both a JD (from Harvard) and a history PhD (from Stanford) who ceaselessly pushed me to at least consider doing a joint JD/PhD. Then, I took an interdisciplinary course on the history of constitutional interpretation from Michael McConnell and earned the opportunity to receive a strong letter of rec from him. The forces of nature seemed to be working against my resistance to the legal profession. In all honesty, I love the law — how many non-law students or non-lawyers do you know that read law reviews in their spare time?!!! The bottom line is that I now plan on applying to the law schools at all the schools where I’ll be applying to PhD programs — whether as a joint venture or an either/or deal is still up in the air — and am currently studying for the LSAT (for which I just registered yesterday). Ultimately, I’m still not particularly interested in practicing law (let alone corporate law), and when I do, I’d like to in the public sector — all with an eye on being able to work as a law professor. And, the upside to it all is that I feel like going to law school is a way of hedging my bets career-wise. I can now apply for PhD programs in Religious Studies without drowning myself in anxiety over my financial future.

    Any advice?

  11. Kevin Barney
    August 30, 2006 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for the autobiographic note. It seems almost inconceivable that you started to read so late. That was all probably a blessing in disguise, as I take it reading is something you do not take for granted the way most of us do, but rather cherish deeply, since your ability to do was so hard won.

    (And I loved the spousal banter, Heather. Very funny!)

  12. August 30, 2006 at 1:31 pm

    I know this isn\’t the point, but it sounds like you should have done some serious phonemic awareness work — something needed for anyone who doesn\’t naturally \’get\’ phonics. There are several programs out there (although they were much less developed [if at all] when you were learning to read), but the basic idea is to first learn how to separate out sounds by working on phonemic awareness sans letters — tying what you feel your mouth doing with what your brain recognizes.

    Of course, phonics is only one tool for good readers. Eventually all words (and even phrases) need to be easily sight read. This is why the whole language vs. phonics debate was rather ridiculous — you need both and in addition you need to be able to tie both into reading comprehension skills (such as the ability to use context to build vocabularly and to extract narrative(s) from text so that you can remember what you read).

    I have worked with kids who can sound out any word — but because they sound out every word, their reading rate is too slow and so their comprehension suffers. I have also worked with kids who have a ton of sight words, but have no phonics skills and so their reading comprehension suffers when they read material that is a bit too advanced for them because they can\’t sound out the words they don\’t recognize.

    Clearly my own intellectual history is stunted. I stopped at the literary stage. ;-)

  13. Mark Butler
    August 30, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    I tend to think it is not how fast you learn, but rather whether you pick up, recognize, and remember what is truly important. I practically double majored in physics and electrical engineering, but was always very slow at doing math problems – slow enough that I had a hard time finishing tests in the allotted time. But I always felt that a proper understanding of the concepts involved was more important than raw speed. I never ever took notes in class – I just wanted to understand and note taking was a distraction.

  14. August 30, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Brad: As I hope is obvious, I have a very different view of professional schools and professional school students now than I did as an undergraduate. The folks that I went to law school with were extremely bright and quite interesting. I imbibed a lot of intellectual snobbery toward the professions, but I now think that it was just that — snobbery. The best attorneys that I know are easily smarter than most of the professors that I know.

    If you do go to law school, don’t write off “corporate law” too quickly. I got interested in the law through constitutional law, but I would find a steady diet of constitutional law quite boring now. I actually think that the philosophical, ethical, and interpretive issues of the core common law subjects like property, tort, and contract are quite a bit more interesting than debates in constitutional law and theory. Certainly, I think that the most interesting stuff being done these days in the philosophy of law is not in public law fields but in private law fields.

  15. August 30, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    Brad: Incidentally, I should also add that I think that many of Nibley’s attacks on the professions (business and law) are both unfair and uninformed. It is not as though Nibley actually knew anything about the practice of law or what was involved practically (as well as ethically and spiritually) in running a business. Very smart and well-read people discussing things about which they are basically ignorant are frequently fresh, original, and insightful. They also, alas, sometimes simply remain ignorant.

  16. August 30, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    gst: some day I will try to forgve you ;->…

  17. Brad Kramer
    August 30, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    “Very smart and well-read people discussing things about which they are basically ignorant are frequently fresh, original, and insightful. They also, alas, sometimes simply remain ignorant.”


  18. DKL
    August 30, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Interesting intellectual autobiography. Just a few comments:

    Nate: the civil war (Shelby Foote and Carl Sandburg )…

    Interesting you should bring this up. I’d hardly call that civil war reading. It’s much closer to apologetics for the North.

    Nate: Furthermore, in the heavily continental-dominated world of BYU philosophy, I imagined graduate work in philosophy as prolonged confinement with Being and Time, a prospect that sent shivers up and down my spine.

    I can sympathize with this. I ended up completing my philosophy major at BYU before they kicked me out, and then all of my credits transfered neatly to Wabash. As with everything else in life, I learned what I find to be really valuable about philosophy (viz., analytical philosophy and 20th century empiricism) on my own.

  19. Mark Butler
    August 30, 2006 at 3:03 pm

    I still don’t think there is a single twentieth century philosopher that comes close to Ockham, six centuries prior. Lots of incremental advances, but no comprehensive visions of any particular value. Atheism is partly responsible for that.

  20. August 30, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    Nate: the heavily continental-dominated world of BYU philosophy

    That is an interesting description of a department where three out of twelve do Continental philosophy (Anderson, Wrathall, and me–and Wrathall also does a good deal of analytic philosophy). If 25% or less = “heavily dominated,” what would 50% be? And what would it take not to be heavily-dominated by Continental philosophy, one professor or none?

    Nate: The chair of the philosophy department (Cody Carter) who told me in the bluntest possible terms that it would be a very bad idea for me to try to get a Ph.D. in philosophy.

    That doesn’t make you very special. Cody tells everyone that and almost certainly with the same degree of bluntness.

  21. August 30, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    Obviously Nate is doing some kind of weighted average, wherein he applies some sort academic impact factor to each professor’s contribution… Hence for all practical purposes Jim F. singlehandedly defines the world of BYU philosophy. ;->

  22. MDS
    August 30, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Nate, I found your bio quite encouraging. Overcoming your disabilities is definitely something to be proud of. I am currently trying to overcome my resemblence to John Adams (at least the fat part, I think I’m stuck with short) and can add your story to many others that inspire me to get up in the morning and exercise.

    On a more cynical note, as an undergraduate student, all I needed to clue me in that a Ph.D. in philosophy was not a wise career plan was to get to know one of the other waiters at my after-school job, who already had that achievement under his belt, but had been unable to use it in any meaningful way.

  23. August 30, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Jim: Remember that I was trying to study political philosophy, which at the time consisted of Bohn, Wrathall, and Reynolds, so two thirds of the people did continental philosophy. It goes without saying, of course, that I am applying a weighted average in which Jim F. looms large…

  24. August 30, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    DKL: Sandburg, yes but not Foote, who is on the whole unconcerned with apologizing for anyone except for those that he saw as the losers in the war: The South on the battlefield and Grant and Sherman in the history books.

  25. Mark IV
    August 30, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    I’m not sure I even understood what the word “blunt” meant until Carter had that conversation with me. I was surprised that people were allowed to talk like that at BYU. Now I’m glad he did, he was just being honest with me after all.

  26. August 30, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    “Remember that I was trying to study political philosophy, which at the time consisted of Bohn, Wrathall, and Reynolds.”

    And Louis Midgley and Ralph Hancock don’t appear on this list because….? (Not that I don’t appreciate the way you put things: “trying to study political philosophy.” This was not easy to do in the late 80s and early 90s. Lou was nominally teaching classes on the Federalist Papers and Tocqueville and Hume, but actually just ended up teaching us a lot about Sterling McMurrin and growing figs. And David Bohn–bless him; one of my best friends from BYU–mainly taught me that what I really want in life is a library with a built-in sliding ladder.)

  27. DKL
    August 30, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    Jim, I think you may be playing a bit fast and loose with numbers here. 3 out of 12 is a lot. From what I’ve seen, most of the philosophy professors at any university are not attached to the philosophy of recent or living philosophers, having 1/4 attached to a given school of living or recent philosophers is quite a lot. Are there 3 philosophers attached to 20th century analytic philosophy? Dr. Graham, for example, is attached to ancient Greek philosophy. I took exactly one class on analytic philosophy when I was there, and it was a directed study course that I privately arranged with a professor on Davidson. I missed the Carter’s class on Goodman, because I planned to add it with an add/drop card, and the lack of signed-up students caused it to be cancelled. Other than that, I don’t remember a single course that focussed on analytic philosophy. There were, for example, courses on Derrida and Heideggar, but none on Russell, Quine, or Carnap.

    Russell, Lou Midgley doesn’t appear on the list because he was probably on sabbatical during Nate’s years there in order to harass the Tanners. I believe it was during that period that he showed up unannounced at Lighthouse Ministries to interrupt George Smith having fondue with the Tanners.

    Dr. Carter’s way of showing respect is to tell it to you like it is. If he treats you with kid gloves, then you’ve got real cause for concern. He’s one of the best teachers I’ve had in any subject.

  28. August 30, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Somewhat like Brad, one reason I decided against law school was feeling shaken after reading Nibley’s Approaching Zion. (I recognize now that I should have read it while shoveling salt over my shoulder.) Another factor was that, while I felt reasonably confident in my writing and analytic abilities, I enjoyed working physics problems (which I deliciously obsessed over) more than I enjoyed writing (at least the writing tasks I was given), even if I didn’t have as much talent for it. I worried that being a lawyer would be drudgery.

    Later I discovered that even physicists have to do a lot of writing they would rather not do anyway; and even later that, when one is choosing one’s topics and writing only the length of a blog post, I enjoy writing far more than I should.

  29. Nate Oman
    August 30, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    RAF: Lou was no longer teaching by the time I arrived at BYU. For some reason or another, I don’t think that Hancock was either. (Sabbatical?)

  30. Susan S.
    August 30, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    It’s a sad downhill story once you quit reading novels!!!

  31. August 31, 2006 at 12:46 am


    Reading Aproaching Zion had the exact opposite effect on me. I have a rather perverse mind. My first reaction was to pretty-much buy into what Nibley was saying about the profession of law, and then to say “well, by golly, I’ll show them! I’ll buck the system!”

    My success since then is debatable.

  32. August 31, 2006 at 11:23 am

    Did you really say “by golly”?

  33. August 31, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Just now, or at the time?

  34. August 31, 2006 at 2:20 pm


  35. shannon
    September 1, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your story. How blessed you were to have parents and at least one teacher who never gave up on you! All too often today I hear how children who do not learn to read \”on schedule\” are somehow doomed to academic failure. How important it is to remember that every child is different and early struggles do not undermine future success! I wish every elementary school teacher (and parents) could hear your story.

  36. Barb
    September 2, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    I am so glad that you shared the fact that you have a learning disability. I was very surprised. I should not be as I know a lot of capable and intelligent people such as yourself have learning disabilities. Although I have never been officially tested, I think that I have learning disabilities that are in many ways the opposite of yours. I have a very good phonemic awareness reading came fairly easy to me. Most of my problems were not readily visible in school settings as my disabilites come into play in areas outside of the core subjects that I was required. But I do think my disabilities are one of the reasons that I have not achieved the independence that most people have achieved at my age. Well, even if I did not have the problems that I have, I am not a big risk taker.

    I do find it interesting that as different as I think you and I are, I am very much drawn to the Revolutionary Era as well as the History of the Restoration. I think it has a lot to do with the excitement surrounding those areas. I have not done extensive reading, but do like to study people from the Revolutionary era such as Abigail Adams(who is my pen name on a forum) and George Washington etc. I like to read about the early Church leaders and hope to get the new edition of Parley P. Pratt’s biography at some distant day.

  37. Sara R
    September 7, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    Nate, thanks for this post. My daughter with dyslexic tendencies is entering 3rd grade. At the end of 2nd grade she was reading very well despite all of her problems in the past. Now as we enter 3rd grade after a little break she has regressed and I’m concerned. It helps to see the big picture in one person’s life. So thank you, and I’ll quit banging my head against the wall.

Comments are closed.