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Teaching Law—A Commentary by Stanley Fish

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on December 12, 2011.

Teaching Law
By Stanley Fish

This week marks the last sessions of my Yale law school class on law, liberalism and religion. In the course of the semester my students have learned how to read religion clause cases against the background of long-standing debates in philosophy and theology about the relationship between religious imperatives and the obligations of democratic citizenship. They have become adept at recognizing the arguments behind the arguments the justices are making explicitly. They can see how a case ostensibly about vouchers or school prayer or Christmas trees on courthouse steps is really about whether principle or history should inform a court’s decisions. They can see how a case about head coverings or beards in the military (a topic that has surfaced once again) turns on the distinctions set down in John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), a tract the justices may never have read. They can see how the majority and dissenting opinions in a free exercise case often reflect a tension between negative and positive liberty as these terms are defined by Isaiah Berlin, an author the justices will likely not have referenced. They can see how the entire history of religion-clause jurisprudence at once illustrates and is an extended critique of John Rawls’s attempt in “Political Liberalism” to devise a form of government that will be fair to religion while at the same time keeping it at arm’s length.

The question asked by an article and an editorial published recently in this newspaper is whether what my students have learned will be of any help to them when they enter practice. At first glance the answer seems to be “no,” if only because Berlin, Locke, Rawls, Hobbes, Kant, Unger and Rorty (writers whose work took up half the semester) are not currency in legal arguments; citing them in front of a court or in a memorandum is likely to be regarded at best as window dressing and at worst as showing off. (Not to mention the fact that few practicing attorneys are likely to be engaging with religion-clause issues anyway.)

One can, however, make the case that the practice of law is more than a technical/strategic exercise in which doctrines, precedents, rules and tests are marshaled in the service of a client’s cause. The marshaling takes place within an enterprise that is purposive. That is, law is more than an aggregation of discrete tactics and procedures; it is an enterprise informed by a vision of how the state can and cannot employ the legalized violence of which it is the sole proprietor. That vision will come into view in the wake of a set of inquiries. What obligations do citizens owe one another? How far can the state go in enforcing those obligations? What restrictions on what the state can do to (and for) its citizens should be in place? How do legal cultures differ with respect to these issues?

Such questions are prior to the bundle of particulars that make up the content of any corner of legal practice. The answers will suggest and generate arguments, strategies, rules and much else one finds in the pages of legal opinions. But the mere rehearsing of those arguments, strategies and rules will be an empty gesture if underlying the rehearsal is not some strong intuition of the general project that calls them forth. In his book “Speech Acts,” the philosopher John Searle makes a distinction between brute and institutional facts. Were you to describe a football game in purely brute physicalist terms — a person tries to move forward and is stopped by several other persons; two men in striped shirts run out with a chain suspended between two sticks that are placed in the ground — the description, Searle observes, would tell you nothing about what is really going on.

But once you re-describe these movements as components of a game at the heart of which is a goal — getting the ball into an area we call the “end zone” in full knowledge of what the zone marks the end of — the facts are immediately endowed with the meaning conferred on them by the institutional practice within which they emerge as facts. So it is with law. The expert practitioner is expert in part because when he listens to a client or walks into a courtroom the field of action is already configured for him by an internalized understanding of what could possibly be at stake in proceedings like these.

That understanding is what law schools offer (among other things). Law schools ask and answer the question, “What’s the game here?”; the ins and outs of the game you learn later, as in any profession. The complaint reported by David Segal in his Times article is that law firms must teach their new hires tricks of the trade they never learned in their contracts, torts and (God forbid) jurisprudence classes. But learning the tricks would not amount to much and might well be impossible for someone who did not know — in a deep sense of know — what the trade is and why it is important to practice it.

That knowledge is reflective. It is developed not on the wing, but in a course of study. It is academic knowledge in the best sense, knowledge that becomes yours by pondering abstract, hypothetical questions; and while the answers to those questions may not have an obviously direct relationship to a particular moment in practice, moments in practice will be illuminated by them in ways of which the practitioner may sometimes be unaware.

In his response to Segal’s essay, Brian Leiter, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, rejects the question of whether what one learns in law school is of any help: “The criterion of scholarly inquiry is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge and understanding, not whether it ‘helps.’” Leiter adds that what he calls “genuine” knowledge often does help with “a host of concrete and practical problems.” But he refuses (rightly, I think) to justify the academic study of law on that basis, for, he explains, “it is the central premise of a research institution that the measure of its achievement is the quality of the scholarship, i.e. its contribution to knowledge — whether of law or biology or literature — not its practical payoff in the short-term.”

The emphasis on practical short-term payoffs has already laid waste to the traditional project of the liberal arts, which may not survive. Is the law next? The law is surely a practice but it is also a subject, and if it ceases to be a subject — ceases to be an object of analysis in classrooms and in law reviews — its practice will be diminished. When a Times editorial declares that “[l]aw is now regarded as a means rather than an end, a tool for solving problems” rather than something of interest in its own right, one wants to say more’s the pity.