Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuition alligators and legal education

The New York Times’s “Room for Debate” topic titled “The Case Against Law School” has generated a fair amount of attention, including posts here, here, and here on this blog. In an age of test-focused, create-a-compliant-employee models of education reform (e.g., No Child Left Behind), I side with debaters Linda Greene, Kevin Noble Maillard, and Geoffrey R. Stone, all of whom address the issue of valuing a law school education in terms beyond those that can be monetized or crammed into some other seemingly objective metric.

Looking back over the decades since I graduated, I can’t figure out how to objectively measure the value of frameworks for thinking that took three years of law school to materialize — frameworks I’m confident I would not have developed through apprenticeship and that have proved valuable (in intangible ways) not just in dealing with legal matters, but, as well, in understanding and dealing in practical ways with economic, social, political, ethical, and moral issues I encounter during my stumblings through life. Courses in labor law and regulated industries (both taught by the same professor) introduced me to Chicago economics and led me both to think more critically about, and to expand, my understanding of economics and (unexpectedly) to begin exploring more broadly the role of design in decisionmaking (a journey in which noneconomist and nonlawyer Don Norman routinely proves a trustworthy guide). My course in constitutional law opened up a different and useful way of thinking about the Constitution and law in general. A simulation seminar on Supreme Court decisionmaking provided striking insights into institutional decisionmaking and how institutional interests affect personal interests (and vice versa).

I don’t contend that alternative models of legal education won’t or can’t work. I do object, however, that those who press for alternative models tend to focus almost exclusively on the cost of obtaining a law degree while denigrating or ignoring benefits that don’t translate directly or immediately into a paycheck. I certainly understand (based on the level of debt I incurred) that when faced with tuition bills like those law students encounter these days, it’s difficult (impossible, maybe?) to foresee distant benefits. But even as my student debt (and that of my wife) mounted in those days, I recalled the placard that often appeared in offices in which I worked during my military service: “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remind yourself that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” When tuition dollars look like those alligators, it’s difficult to remind yourself that education is, in fact, about more than the alligators.



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