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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Contract as Shank

A contract is like a screwdriver. Prison shanks small

A screwdriver can be used for turning screws and opening cans of paint. Or it can be used as a dagger in mortal prison combat. Likewise, a contract can “facilitate an efficient private ordering of society,” but it can also be “a means of social dominance and oppression.” Law professors should be quicker to tell new students about the shank-side of contracts.

That’s the gist of Teaching Contract Law: Introducing Students to a Critical Perspective Through Indentured Servitude and Sharecropper Contracts, 66 SMU L. Rev. 341 (2013), by Dr. Gregory Scott Crespi.

Crespi provides a sample lecture in which he tells of homeless English people becoming indentured servants and former slaves becoming sharecroppers. In both cases, contracts were used to bind people to functional slavery.

Crespi gives this lecture around the third class of the semester. He believes that informing students of such abusive contracts early in their legal educations allows them to bring a critical perspective to subsequent doctrinal studies and to consider the law’s context and unintended social consequences.

Dr. Crespi has done us several services by publishing this piece: (1) he has given us a brilliant lecture to use if we don’t feel like doing our own critical research; (2) he has kept it short, six printed pages, excluding footnotes; and (3) he has told us some important stories about abusive contracts.

But I wonder if Crespi’s approach is like teaching students to play tennis without a net? Does the first-semester 1L understand the intended consequences of the law well enough to opine on the unintended consequences? Students arrive at law school fluent in cynicism, but they have difficulty describing the relationship between well-established doctrines and the common good. So perhaps students should be encouraged to develop a critical perspective later, rather than sooner.

Using Crespi’s screwdriver analogy, imagine a master carpenter saying to his new apprentice, “The first thing about a screwdriver is that it turns screws. The second thing is that it can open a can of paint. The third thing is that it can be sharpened into a dagger and used to kill a man.” It’s a fascinating narrative, but is it apt for the apprentice? I’m inclined to think students need to know doctrine before they can criticize it and that giving new students the critical perspective too early might cause them to develop a distorted view of Contracts and the world.

Query the right view of Contracts and the world. If the professor think it’s more shanks than screwdrivers, perhaps the critical lesson should come early. I probably won’t be giving that lesson until at least class number four.

[Kenneth Ching]

[Image by Xeni Jardin]

 

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