LILAC: Visions of Legal Education

by Paul Maharg on 17/02/2010

The panel discussion, chaired by Avrom and responding in part to the film produced by UKCLE, started with useful contributions from Chris Maguire, Melissa Hardee and Roger Burridge.  There were spirited responses from the floor but the debate resolved yet again into an either/or, between versions of the liberal law school and versions of the vocational training school.  From various quarters there were warnings that the economy was against us, that government funding was an instrument of a policy of utilitarian impoverishment of our traditions, that critical thinking was the essential ground of the law school's vision, that engagement with the profession was essential; and the longer it drew on the more abstract and heated the discussion became.  

Does the debate have to turn out like this?  Is there another approach we can take?



There is, and it was mapped out around a century ago for us by John Dewey, whose Pragmatic approach to education, philosophy and the problems of both give us a resolution of the double-bind we find ourselves in. Dewey started by questioning terms and categories at a profound, meta-level.  Remarkably, for a philosopher who was influenced strongly by Hegel, eg Philosophy of Right, he held that philosophy was 'the theory of education as a deliberately conducted practice' (MW, 9, 341).  The relationship between philiosophy and education was not that of theory to practice, however.  Reversing the usual polarities, philosophy was practical for Dewey, education was necessarily theoretical.  As he pointed out 'nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching' (MW, 9, 176-7).  

Education's theory, though, doesn't spin out of air.  It arises from the human problems of communication and analysis of actual problems — difficulties that need dealt with, issues that must be solved.  We seek for theory in the act of dealing with difficulties in order to clarify, identify and resolve difficulties.  And we apply theory to the problem at hand, oscillating between theory and practice, knowing and doing, past knowledge, future expectations.

Given this, a Pragmatist view of the issues discussed at the Panel would be to question whether we ought to use terms such as 'liberal law school', 'vocational training' and the like.  What do they really mean in practice, that, is, in real educational terms?  How do they relate to our experience of teaching or learning?  When considered thus, the terms are not terribly helpful.  They are used as shorthand for a constellation of ideas or practices, some of which may apply to a single law teacher's practice or a single law school's espoused aims, but seldom all.  The lived reality of legal education in all its complexity defeats the shallow generalisation of the terms.  Instead, what we need to do is investigate the lived reality of educational practice and discourse.  

Dewey's early mentor, Hegel, advocated precisely this analysis of inner contradictions and complexities that leads to more sophisticated forms of understanding. And a conference such as LILAC plays its part in this. It's actually in the detail of the parallel sessions that we find the most interesting ideas and practices, where practitioners struggle with contradictions such as convention – innovation, and have the conference space to create for us new ideas, new spaces, new ways to understand legal education, new ways to understand how our society actually works.  As Dewey said, speaking of democracy and education, democracy itself is 'more than a form of government, it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience' (MW, 9, 93).  That's what legal education should be, too.

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