Wednesday, 18 January 2012

"Law now entry-level degree for careers"

In the latest 'In-daily' newsletter, there was an article by Melissa Mack titled 'Law now entry-level degree for careers.'  It starts by noting that 'ONLY about half the Law graduates go on to become lawyers as increasingly the law degree is perceived as a course that "teaches students to think".'

No.  Absolutely not.  I disagree in the strongest possible terms!  Law is not a degree that teaches people to think.  It is a degree that teaches people to understand the law, but has almost no relevance to the world other than the in the strictest jurisprudential way.

Teaching students to think:
How exactly DOES one teach students to think?  What does it mean to teach someone to think?  How do you know when a student has learned to think?  ('Excuse me, but are you capable of conscious thought?'  'Uggrl burgle blah.'  'Did your law degree help achieve that?'  'pthootn mlarm.')

I am a huge fan of the old British system of tertiary education.  If you wanted to study a profession (IE Law, Medicine, etc.) you had to have completed an undergraduate degree first.  This meant that people who went on to study the professions had a solid base of knowledge, and more importantly, the skills to gather MORE knowledge before embarking on a further course of specialised study.

The most common undergraduate degrees were Arts and Science.  Leaving Science aside for now (bloody nerrrds...) let's talk about what an Arts degree entails.

What is Arts?
First of all, the common misconception is that people study Arts to learn how to be Artists.  No.  If one wants to be an artist, you study ART.  The study of the discipline called 'arts' is the study of a broad range of arts, including almost anything that could be called an 'art.'  The 'art' of communication, for example, is only peripherally connected to a paint brush or a sculpture.  (Please no flaming comments about how 'art' is expression... this is just an example.)

A typical 'arts' degree is a fairly unstructured, broad ranging degree.  A student can choose to specialise (Bachelor of Arts majoring in Music, History or German, for example) or can choose to complete their degree without a major.  In any event, the student is forced to appreciate a wide range of topics relating to the world.

I completed a Bachelor of International Studies, which is basically a glorified Arts degree with an in-built focus on politics.  I could also have completed an Arts degree, with a focus on International Studies, to much the same effect.  (Indeed, I could have taken all the same classes.)  During my studies, I took a fascinating course called "Morality, Society and the Individual."  This course was a basic introduction to the discipline of philosophy, and introduced us to such riveting problems as the prisoner's dilemma.  (See Wikipedia article here) If you haven't heard of it, that is your first piece of homework.  (Far more interesting than any of my rambling here...)

Asides from that, I took courses in Chinese (one semester, then I dropped out), history, politics, linguistics, and even ancient history.  I studied information theory, media theories, and the politics of leadership.  Perhaps my favorite course was a general history of the West since world-war II.  As a result, I can hold an informed conversation about any of those topics.  Plus, when I read a phrase such as 'neo-realist approach' I know that the author is a pompous over-educated moron.  (I have sources...)

I may not be an expert in any of those areas, but I am certainly more knowledgable about the way people react to different situations.  I have a broad understanding of history, and I can analyse cause/effect scenarios with reference to past events.

Does Law teach us to think?
So, this gets us to the original premise of this post... does the study of Law teach students to think?   We are taught to read legislation and interpret that with reference to case law.  In other words, we are taught to read things written in a techno-jargon called 'legalese' by people who specialise in writing complex legalese documents.  We are then expected to tell other people what that means in real English, or at least tell them why they are going to jail, and how much they have to pay us.

We are taught to read vast tracts of case law by such esteemed (and rambling) Judges as His Honour Justice Michael Kirby.  We then have to regurgitate all of this information in three-hour marathons called exams where we are expected to apply our wonderful knowledge to specific scenarios.

We ARE expected to know how to think, but only in a very limited fashion.  I know people who are so much more intelligent than me, but when faced with a real-life problem are simply not able to react.  They can tell me to the nth degree what the law is and where I stand, but they can't tell me how to deal with a family issue that has ended in a protracted 2-year legal battle. 

So employers, think about this.  Do you want someone working in your government office who can read a piece of legislation and tell constituents to fill in form P629-a/43, or do you want someone who knows that World War II stimulated the world economy out of a depression?

Or, to put it another way, do you want polititians who know exactly how to rort the system, or do you want a defense minister who understands the arms-race that led to World War I?  Just sayin'...

ML


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