I just finished reading Salman Kahn‘s book about a new education model entitled “One World Schoolhouse.” It was an inspirational read about doing away with old antiquated notions of education and changing the status quo toward a better way of doing things. It struck me how the legal system is equally stuck in the past and how lawyers and judges are products of our flawed education system. There are certainly lawyers and judges who are models of intelligence and vision, but, those few aside, there is vast room for improvement in our profession.
A very important idea about law is that it can only provide approximate solutions — it takes people to make it more precise on a case-by-case basis. The great judge Learned Hand used to labor over his decisions because he innately understood that law, as a body of words and rules, is very crude without wise application. Words convey the law, but words are merely guides to the underlying ideas. The job is to work with ideas without getting too fixated on the words that are meant only to serve as markers for those ideas. Too often however underlying ideas get disregarded in favor of dogmatic, rote, and superficial application. We need the opposite. We need wise and able thinkers who are not afraid to think for themselves — not afraid to reach beyond mere words to get at the underlying ideas.
It is becoming increasingly evident that traditional schooling has a strong tendency toward superficial learning. A premium is placed on compliance and following directions. There is little incentive to grapple with nuance, uncertainty, and the open-ended nature of reality. Test-taking and grades are what the system is primarily about. Deep and inspired learning rarely happens, and worse, it gets eliminated as a preference. Those that can work within that environment succeed. Lawyers & judges are longtime members of that system and one has to wonder how that shapes law.
I started out my legal journey thinking it was a noble and intellectual pursuit. I later discovered that while such is sometimes true it is more often something less. Maybe there are other contributory factors but I wonder about the pool of people who’ve met the prerequisites for law school in the first place. Perhaps there’s a rigidity built-in from years of education in our flawed system. Perhaps it’s the law itself with its endless nuance that exhausts us and pushes us toward the easy answers. Whatever the problems or causes, the law could greatly benefit from a Kahn-style self inventory to see how we can improve our legal system. No easy task for sure, but it all starts with the right kind of people.