Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Criticism and Deconstruction, Imagination and Virtue

A former student, and excellent young lawyer, Ashley Norgard, sent this piece my way with these words:  “This article makes so much sense to me. A liberal arts undergrad and normal law school curriculum teach us to find the weaknesses. It is only through clinics and mediation that we are forced to answer the ‘so what? What's your proposed solution?’”

Michael S. Roth, Young Minds in Critical Condition, in the New York Times's Opinionator blog:

Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work. It is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are, at least temporarily, overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand an experience from another’s point of view. We are not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities. . . . 

Liberal education must not limit itself to critical thinking and problem solving; it must also foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.

This is right.  We have become experts in deconstruction and criticism, and this is good.   What we have come to lack is the imagination to turn deconstruction into reconstruction, the building of something better in the place of the flawed, to generate justice in the place of injustice.   We often leave our students in a posture of ambivalence, irony and detachment, rather than empowering them with a vision of what might be.  

Law school has become adept at stripping students of their humane, spiritual impulses for justice, fairness and imagination, yet we have an essential role of professional formation, not just academic deconstruction.   We teach them to think like lawyers, but we also must show them how to be lawyers, public citizens equipped to serve communities so that they flourish and thrive. 

J.N. Armstrong, first president of my alma mater, Harding University, said this about courageous teaching and our visions of justice:  

All progress of truth -- scientific truth, political truth, or religious truth -- all truth -- has depended on free speech and progressive teachers who were not afraid to teach their honest convictions.

Let us take some risks.  Let us be engaged in the pragmatic world and see through others' eyes.  May we teach our students the craft of criticism, but let us not neglect the arts of imagination and virtue.   We may not be able predict or assess what the students and we will learn, but it may be beautiful.  


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