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Mon, 08 Aug 2011

The New York Times, which is certainly a bastion of the liberal arts types if anywhere is, has been running a debate about law school that is similar to the one about college in general that I discussed in my post a couple of weeks ago on the two cultures. The question under debate is: "Should the standard three years of law school, followed by the bar exam, be the only path to a legal career?"

I won't bother canvassing most of the responses, which are predictable. What got my attention were a couple of responses that got into that same "two cultures" territory that prompted my last rant.

First up is a law professor who wants us to know that law school is not a trade school:

At the risk of sounding "liberal artsy," law school should emphasize educated citizenship. It prepares people to become leaders in our society, which makes it imperative that they be rigorously trained as thinkers. They will become stewards of policies that affect our everyday lives: in our schools, our jobs and our families. All of this responsibility, in diverse fields, comes from legal education.

I hardly know where to start, but perhaps that phrase "liberal artsy" will do. So a degree in, say, physics, or chemistry, or engineering doesn't qualify one to be a "steward" of important policies? Not even a degree in one of those other liberal arts, like literature? "All of this responsibility" can only be had if you first get a law degree? Wow.

The standard liberal artsy argument, of course, is that one doesn't have to actually understand the details of a technical field, like physics or chemistry, in order to be a "steward of policies" that are dependent on such a field. One can always learn enough to know which experts in the field to trust. I would hope that my last rant, and the observations of C. P. Snow that I quoted there, would be sufficient refutation of that, but in case you don't think it is, consider this from Paul Graham:

Try this thought experiment. A dictator takes over the US and sends all the professors to re-education camps. The physicists are told they have to learn how to write academic articles about French literature, and the French literature professors are told they have to learn how to write original physics papers. If they fail, they'll be shot. Which group is more worried?

We have some evidence here: the famous parody that physicist Alan Sokal got published in Social Text. How long did it take him to master the art of writing deep-sounding nonsense well enough to fool the editors? A couple weeks?

What do you suppose would be the odds of a literary theorist getting a parody of a physics paper published in a physics journal?

My experience leads me to a similar conclusion. I would much rather have a scientifically educated person making policy and having to learn the political stuff as they go, then have a liberal arts educated person making policy and having to learn the science as they go.

But even that conclusion assumes that those are the only choices. Why do they have to be? And no, I'm not talking about those "interdisciplinary" degrees. I'm talking about the misconception that there should be any rule for choosing "leaders in our society", other than doing stuff that works. No one group, no one academic discipline, has a lock on "educated citizenship". This is America; we are all supposed to be educated citizens. And there are no degrees in that discipline; we all learn it on the job.

Even focusing on "degrees" in the first place ignores all the other areas of experience that are highly relevant to citizenship, such as serving in the military, or even something simple like being a good neighbor. If we look at the track records of "stewards of policies", it certainly doesn't look to me like law degrees, or indeed any degrees, stack up very well against those other types of experiences. (The hard sciences know this; people outside the standard "academic" circles can get work published if it's good. Einstein, of course, was a Patent Office clerk when he published his five classic scientific papers, in 1905, in the most prestigious physics journal in the world at that time, Annalen der Physik.) Have our Presidents, or Senators, or Representatives, with law degrees been better, on balance, than those with other backgrounds? Congress is certainly chock full of lawyers now, and look at it.

But wait, there's more. Another law professor says that a law degree is priceless because of the experience it gives you:

My own decision to attend law school was based in part upon my perception, still shared by those who rush our doors, that a legal education provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the intersection of private and public power, to explore the rationale for the organization of human society and to participate more knowledgeably and effectively in every aspect of human endeavor.

I guess I can't quarrel with the "intersection of private and public power" part; lawyers certainly get to see that first-hand. But unlike the law professor, I regard that as a bug, not a feature. As Chesterton said:

[T]he horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policeman, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it. Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop.

It seems to me that the best way to "participate more knowledgeably and effectively" in society is to actually participate in it, not to sit above it and tinker with the rules. And I'm all for exploring the "rationale for the organization of human society", but again, that's part of educated citizenship, and no one group or discipline has a special private line to the right answers. We can only judge by the actual track record.

In fact, the law professor says so himself:

When the history of legal education is written, the important question...will be, "Did our legal education system deliver equal justice under law?"

The answer in our society today, I submit, is quite often "no". Too bad the professor thought the question was just rhetorical.

Posted at 22:40   |   Category: rants   |   Tags: education, politics   |   Permalink
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