Essentially, there was a story earlier this week where David Segal addressed the complaint that law schools are teaching things that aren't of any practical value to lawyers. The line of argument reminded me of a great line in the "Law and Order" episode "Aftershock," when lawyer Claire Kincaid complains to her father, a law school professor, that people take contracts courses without ever reading a contract. She's overwhelmed by the realities of practicing law and feels her education didn't prepare her in the slightest for what she had to face. Her dad's response? She went to a law school, not a lawyer school.
That's the basic distinction here. Dr Fish describes a course he taught this semester at Yale, on the religion clause in the U.S. Constitution where his students studied philosophers like Kant, Locke, Rawles, Hobbes, and the rest. These aren't texts that will feature into a philosopher's legal briefs, Dr. Fish admits, but he thinks being exposed to them is worthwhile none the less. I very nearly said "useful" just now, but that's not it at all. In fact, Fish points out that the use of study isn't the point at all. He quotes Dr. Brian Leiter, who I associate with a major philosophy blog but who apparently is also a law professor: The criterion of scholarly inquiry is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge and understanding, not whether it ‘helps.’
I don't disagree with them. I'm studying philosophy and teaching it as part of my fellowship, and one of the questions I hate hearing is what use a certain topic is. You can question why some topics are interesting or important, to be sure, but don't demand its use, its application to things with a practical benefit. Philosophy is an art, and I think Dr. Leiter's right: the important question is does it illuminate, does it lead to deeper and truer and more nuanced understanding? Not whether it puts money in the bank.
The trouble is, law school does have to prepare you to be a lawyer. Students go into debt, often incredibly deep, and it's not fair to them if (a) law school is required to practice law, and (b) it doesn't really help them practice law. Things get even more complicated when you talk about public funding. There are sometimes special programs where the government will pay for your schooling if you work so many years in a D.A.'s office rather than in private practice. It's more common in other professions (nursing, education), but I know my M.A. school had a program like that for law school. And I find myself wondering, as a taxpayer: is that just?
I think it comes down to how we view education. If education is all about preparing people to fill a job we need filled, and we support it through taxes (whether for special programs like those, public school tuition, subsidized loans, whatever), I think you can make a case that we should only be paying for things that actually serve a public purpose. We help the best future doctors pay for med school because we want those people to go to med school - it's in our interest. But you don't take vitally needed money from other services and spend it on something that will maybe help the person become a better individual, but won't actually contribute to the roles society needs them to fill.
I personally think that's the wrong model. Democracies rely on everyone being well-educated and critical. ANd part of the purpose of society is to help each individual flourish as a human, and a big part of what that means is the freedom to think deep thoughts and learn more about things that are worth thinking about even if there isn't a practical payoff. People talk a lot about the dignity of human life; part of that dignity is the dignity to be fully human, fully rational no matter your wealth. Put it simply: subjects like law and philosophy and all the rest shouldn't just be a "luxury" for the rich. Under this model, I'd say it makes sense to help pay for even "impractical" subjects. Because even if they don't prepare you for a job, they help you become a better person.
That of course involves caring about what is best for other people and not just what they can do for me. I personally think that's a deeply moral stance, but it's one that requires a genuine sense of community. Whether that still exists in this country? Not so sure on that one.