Friday, January 08, 2010

Introduction (3) – The law teachers

Having described appellate judges as being happily regressed to studious habits, I should turn to consider the law teachers. Academic life has changed, probably rather a lot, since Benson, who was in 1906 a Fellow of Magdalene College at Cambridge, described his day:

"My own occupations, such as they are, fill the hours from breakfast to luncheon and from tea to dinner; men of sedentary lives, who do a good deal of brain-work, find an hour or two of exercise and fresh air a necessity in the afternoon."

AC Benson, From a College Window (1906), p 72.

I first read those bewitching words as an 18 year old undergraduate. A little impractical though they may be, they reflect the romantic ideal of the scholarly life. The reality is hugely different. Nietzsche was, as one would expect, scornful of scholars:

"Every age has invented its own divine type of naivete, which other periods may find enviable – and how much naivete, how much admirable, childlike, and endlessly foolish naivete lies in the scholar's faith in his own superiority, in his good conscience for being tolerant, in the simple clueless confidence with which he instinctively treats the religious person as an inferior and lower type, one that he himself has grown away from, grown beyond, grown above – he, the presumptuous little dwarf and vulgarian, the diligent darting headworker and handworker of 'ideas', of 'modern ideas'!"

F Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Trans. M Faber, Oxford World's Classics 1998, pp 52-53.

Well, Benson was certainly not that sort of scholar. Nietzsche did try to say some good things about scholars ...

"... what is a man of learning? A common sort of man, first of all, with a common man's virtues, that is to say, neither masterful nor authoritative nor even self-sufficient. He is industrious, patiently joining the rank and file, conforming and moderate in his abilities and needs."

Ibid, p 96.

But those good sentiments didn't last the whole paragraph:

"... he is rich in petty envy and has a lynx-eye for what is base in those other natures whose heights he is unable to reach. ... The worst and most dangerous things that a scholar is capable of come from the instinct of his type to mediocrity ... ."

Ibid, pp 96-97.

Montaigne too thought that scholars sink beneath the load that they have taken up:

" ... That is why we see so many inadequate minds among scholars; more, in fact, than of the other kind. They would have made good farmers, good tradesmen, good craftsmen; their natural strength was cut to that measure.

" Learning is a thing of great weight, and they collapse under it; their understanding is not powerful or adroit enough to display and distribute that rich and potent material, to make use of it and get help from it."

Montaigne, Essays, Book Three, Chapter 8, above p 297.

I suppose things have improved a bit, due to the commercialisation of tertiary education and the beneficial effects of competition among universities for status, among students for grades, and among graduates for employment. High educational standards are in high demand. Students, especially those paying high fees, demand excellence in their teachers. The grades awarded to students can be seen as a reflection of the teachers' ability to teach, as one of Dershowitz's teachers admitted (above, p 70). Dershowitz also notes (pp 105-106) that if law teachers lack experience in practice they cannot adequately teach the practical skills sought by employers.

Is scholarly writing by law teachers only of use to students and appellate judges?

Posner observes that legal scholarship in general has as a marked characteristic a weak sense of fact (Overcoming Law, 1995, p 172). Also,

"The academic usually does not attend oral argument or even read the briefs in the cases that he writes about or teaches. Naturally, therefore, he tends to ascribe more importance to the opinion, to its reasoning, its rhetoric, and so forth, than to the decision itself. Yet these are the secondary factors for most judges."

Richard Posner, Overcoming Law, above, pp 129-130.

Academics, it seems, fail to appreciate the judicial point of view:

"Many judges think that academics do not understand the aims and pressures of judicial work and that as a result much academic criticism of judicial performance is captious, obtuse, and unconstructive. This sense is shared even by appellate judges, engaged in the quasi-scholarly work of opinion writing, including appellate judges appointed from the professoriat."

Richard Posner, How Judges Think (2008), p 205.

He notes that "law schools still have a long way to go to overcome the shameful aversion of most law students to math, statistics, science, and technology" (ibid, p 209). Constructive legal scholarship would get to grips with tidying up the "messy work product of judges and legislators" by "synthesis, analysis, restatement, and critique" (p 210).

"It falls to the law professors to clean up after the judges by making explicit in treatises, articles, and restatements the rules implicit in the various lines of cases, identifying outliers, explicating policy grounds, and charting the path of future development. This type of scholarship resembles appellate judging because it is the kind of thing one could imagine the judges themselves doing had they the time and the specialised knowledge."

Richard Posner, How Judges Think (2008), p 211.

I have relied heavily on Posner's views, as he is an appellate judge, and as a practitioner I only rarely look at academic writing. My impression is that it would be very unusual for counsel to cite academic writing (other than statute-commentary text books) in written submissions. Judges sometimes cite academic articles, but I - perhaps unfairly - perceive an element of cronyism in that.

Be that as it may, the conclusion I draw from these various thoughts is that law would best be taught by retired appellate judges.

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