Thursday, September 01, 2005

Less of the Same

Today I'd like to put forward the very rough outline of a different curriculum for law school. The nub of it is found in the notion that the current curriculum resides within one context for all of its three years when it should acknowledge other important contexts for and of learning. Simply, with few exceptions, law school consists of three years of pretty much the same thing.

That "thing" is a focus on argumentation, whether it's called that or not. Argument is, indeed, the lawyer's critical tool. To argue a student needs to learn all the essentials that make up "thinking like a lawyer," which, it seems clear, wouldn't be much use unless the "thinking" emerged as "talking" and "writing" like a lawyer. Legal argument requires, among other things, a keen and profession-specific sense of relevance, an ability to appeal to a certain notion of reason and to authority, and skill at finding, analysing and re-synthesizing that authority.

Law students learn to do this in year one; they do it some more in year two in this and that fresh subject matter context; rinse and repeat in year three.

There are a lot of ways of criticizing this monotony -- and some ways of supporting it, I acknowledge. I don't want to rehearse these -- it's a blog, after all. I merely want to suggest that a shifting of social contexts during law school would improve the program in a good many ways.

I'd devote 80% of first year to a study of law in a social context -- that is, a study about law -- the history of it, the sociology of it, the philosophy of it, the roots of injustice and justice. This is placing law in a larger context and intends to broaden the minds of would-be specialists. It also accomplishes the educational goal of meeting students where they are, rather than plunging them into the cognitive dissonance we so love to play with. Yes, some students would have done work in these areas before; doesn't matter; this is -- or should be -- work at a graduate level.

Second year is the year that most resembles current law school, at least 75% of it would be. Here students expressly tackle the study of law in the somewhat narrower professional context. Skills are address more directly; research is taught more thoroughly; legislation is given pride of place; etc.

In third year the context narrows further still to the personal. This is the chance for individual students to be individuals, to pursue personal research projects like other graduate students, to examine what it means to be a person in the practice of law, to be a client, to relate person to person, to develop, in short, those skills that relate to keeping graduates sane and in touch with their needs and aspirations, their abilities and their liabilities as people.

I'd mix and mingle somewhat across the years. Thus, in first year, though 75% of the time is spent on broad scholarship, 15% might be spent anticipating in some sense the coming second year focus on professional skills, and 10% on acknowledging the personal in the student's enterprise. As the years progressed, elements from the year before would be carried forward and elements from the year ahead would be "previewed" to some degree.

Those are the bleached and very bare bones of a curriculum designed to rescue for law schools and law students the neglected contexts that are, nevertheless, truly important in the pursuit of justice by real human beings.

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