Sea-change

by Paul Maharg on 03/01/2012

Happy New Year to all readers!  My article, Sea-change, was published in the International Journal of the Legal Profession, in a number dedicated to William Twining (seminar held in his honour was blogged here). When I got down to writing the article, though, I found myself writing about something rather different from the seminar presentation, though the main points of both were the same.

On one level what I wanted to do in the article was to draw a comparison between two very different legal educational innovations, namely the realist curriculum reforms at Columbia U in the 1920s, and some of the innovations that were brought about in the Glasgow Graduate School of Law at Strathclyde U. Working deep in the archives of the William Butler Library at Columbia on Dean Harlan Stone’s papers, back in 2006, I got a powerful sense of déjà vu.  The structure of change, the ways in which change was envisaged, the sense of Oliphant, Wheeler Cook, Underhill Moore and the rest feeling their way forward into a curriculum that could be described but not experienced until it actually ran for the first time, and so remained frustratingly at symbolic order stage — this had happened to me before, when we began work in the Glasgow Graduate School of Law in the early years of the millennium.  The ambitions were the same — we too wanted to change the pedagogy, in our case of professional legal education.

The key difference was the timescale.  When I arrived at Strathclyde, GGSL was being set up and I had six months to plan the integration of Glasgow’s and Strathclyde’s Diploma.  Naively I thought that would be pretty easy — same programmes, huh?  How little I knew of the detail of the programmes, the politics of integration and above all the meaning of that phrase ‘curriculum drift’.  The Diploma programmes may have been the same at some point, but they had been drifting since 1981 or so: the gap between them wasn’t the couple of miles between Strathclyde in the city centre and Glasgow in the leafy West End.  It was more like transatlantic drift.

But the new programme needed to be up & running in the first year, which meant working really fast, implementing the absolutely necessary changes in the first year, then planning priorities for the future.  Above all, it meant learning from mistakes, turning them round fast, keeping close contact with a student body that was already nervous about a new programme they knew little about, training staff for that programme, and much else.  Alan Paterson, Head of School, had already a vision for how we would link with the profession, through consultative committees and through Visiting Professorships filled with practitioners who had experience in legal education; and that helped.

And through the politics of institutional collaboration, keeping confidence in a Deweyan vision of legal education and a determination that it would work.  It was clearer to me as I worked through the merging that what we needed was not a Strathclyde or a Glasgow Diploma but a new Diploma, utterly new, and that now was the opportunity to create as much of that innovation as possible.  Not a merged Diploma, but an emerging Diploma.  In the William Butler Library, reading Stone’s papers and the realists’ memos and curriculum documents (and as Twining says in relation to his seminal work on Llewellyn, there’s no better way to get to know an author in depth than to work through his or her papers) I recognized so many of the problems at Columbia in the early 1920s were the ones we had grappled with at GGSL.

And because the Diploma was a professional legal education qualification, on the edge of the academy, but not within the profession, a mesocosmic object, I recalled the first piece of legal education literature I read that spoke to my condition, as the Quakers say.  I’d just finished the law degree in 1992 — last exam, Conveyancing, and I went into depression at the experience of two years of law exam cramming.  Was this what law was about?  Weeks after it, when I went back into the Library, partly to research some work I was doing and partly to read something, anything, that would make sense of the experience, my eye was caught by an article on plumbing and Pericles, an inaugural lecture by someone I’d not heard of, one W. Twining.  It was a revelation and showed me exactly what had been missing from my law degree, and how things might be changed.

Twining’s lecture also led me to Llewellyn, to the Realists, and I began to make the connections, to Dewey, to pragmatist education, and to the education I’d been interested in before the law degree.  Eg his Elements made complete sense to me because for about six years prior to studying law I’d been a part-time tutor in adult education, one day helping medical doctoral students to write their theses, the next in an outreach project in an area of multiple-deprivation in Glasgow, teaching adult illiterates how to read and write.  Llewellyn’s focus on process, on the differences between fast and slow reading for instance,  was exactly what was missing in my own legal education and I could readily see the parallels with my adult literacy classes.

And with music.  To put myself in the position of my basic literacy students I read music to grade 6 from zero and sat a Higher Grade exam, classical guitar & lute – fascinating parallels, as I discovered, between ways of reading.  Eg I’d always tell my literacy students ‘read ahead, don’t fix on the letters, let yr mind anticipate what the phrase will be like and go with it’, which is exactly what I had to do when reading musical phrases.  The parallels with reading legal cases go beyond the merely cognitive level to the interpretive/textual level, to the adjudicational level – eg Rosemary Hunter’s recent work on writing feminist judgments that are actually proxy or anticipated judgments.  Just as Llewellyn was interested in what judges did with cases and taught that, so I was interested in how readers read and wrote, musicians read and played, and how lawyers read and did law.

And what attracted me to Llewellyn and the realists was not Leiter’s Core Claim or any other reconstruction of what the realists might be saying.  It’s the ‘interesting theories, sub-theories and ideas’ that are valuable, perhaps even more valuable than the reconstructed Core – and these contribute to what Twining called the ‘whole view’.  Discovering that in the early nineties made me realise the strong links there are between a Deweyan educational pragmatism and Llewellyn’s realist educational approaches, which I’ve been exploring ever since.  For as Dewey demonstrated  and argued (and Llewellyn had enormous respect for him in this as in much else), it’s perfectly possibly to learn and critique legal theory, policy and practice by actually doing law.  That is the sea-change, the core of the transformational ambition that lay at the heart of (most of) the Realist educational projects, and Dewey’s approach to learning, and the GGSL’s as well, and mine.

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