In my last post, I described what seems to me a growing tendency among students to prefer to consume their legal educations in the same way they consume virtually everything else: with the least possible interaction with other human beings. This tendency arises partly from habit (that’s just how we do things); partly from a consumerist approach to education (it’s my education, I’ll take it the way I like it); and partly from what seems to me to be a declining interest in cultivating the skills associated with face-to-face relations among human beings. If I’m right about this trend, how ought legal educators and professionals think about it?
First, self-service simply is not an appropriate mode for acquiring higher learning. On the contrary, even at its best it institutionalizes a form of standardization that can provide a really good education only by accident. Good teaching is not algorithmic; each student needs something a little different; a few may need something very different. Self-service education is acceptable only if you think that teaching is something that is done best by mass-produced communications aimed at no one in particular.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case; a good deal of ground can be covered with many students by feeding them a diet of pre-packaged material from which no deviation is possible. But as a teacher and advisor, I have always felt that to know what my students need I must see their faces, while they are performing, in my presence. By definition, students with trouble can’t fully articulate their own problems, so an affirmative diagnosis is often necessary, and that is a skill and an art that must be performed in person. I need to palpate my students, metaphorically speaking, to teach and advise them effectively. Every teacher starts in every circumstance with a predicted script, but the best teachers stand ready to throw away the script when they sense a problem in the classroom, just as the best athletes stand ready to scramble on a broken play.
The concept of self-service education denies what a real education fundamentally is: an improvised, often messy and meandering collaboration between a teacher and a student, an expert and a novice. Instead, education is reconceived as a deliberate and unilateral act of acquisition by the student. Teachers are merely props, means to their students’ ends. The teacher’s experience, expertise, and hard-acquired judgment are denied; they drop out of the equation. That’s bad enough, but it also has consequences. Teachers do not unilaterally construct themselves; they are constructed partially by their students. Students who treat their teacher like a walking avatar whose only purpose is obediently to spit out information demanded by the student, in a form and at a time demanded by the student, will not elicit from the teacher his or her best performance. You might say: A teacher must always give his or her best performance. I respond: This merely denies the premise I wish to assert: that good teaching is not an imposition of will, from either side of the lectern, but a mutually constitutive, ongoing, relationship. Both parties must participate fully and in good faith if the teaching and the learning are to approach their potential.
In the end, it is the decreasing attention to the relationship aspect of the educational enterprise that most troubles me about what I think I detect in a growing number of aspiring legal professionals. Today at least, it is not possible in the legal profession to attain one’s objectives without the ability to engage and to inspire other human beings face to face. Lawyers constantly must influence the behavior of others – clients, witnesses, judges, other lawyers, court and law office staff – and often that influence can be exercised best, or even only, in person. Students who fail to cultivate the necessary skills of in-person engagement will later find themselves unable to obtain their professional goals – not always, perhaps, but certainly sometimes.
Still, the biggest question is whether this will at some point cease to be the case. Eventually, the generation now in law school classrooms will run things. If they behave no differently in positions of leadership than they now behave in positions of apprenticeship, will the art of in-person communication and influence become irrelevant? Although I’d like to be able to rule this out, I’m not sure I can. In the meantime, then, those of us in positions of trust are left with a difficult question of stewardship. Do we insist our students achieve proficiency in a skill we know to be valuable at the moment? Do we, in other words, double down on our current position, resisting present trends on the ground that they are maladaptive? Or do we let it go, betting instead on the emergence of a world in which such skills have limited currency?