What law school can teach high school: Part I

March 8, 2013 § 3 Comments

A miner had been electrocuted and our client was sued. I was in my first year of law practice, and as the associate on the case, I had to learn as much about mining as possible. Dozens of statutes and cases, as well as hundreds of mine-specific state regulations, parked themselves in my mental space for many weeks. I had to know the basics of mining electricity; miner apparel; mining safety; and the ways that safety precautions are reviewed and enforced. I had to review dozens of reports issued by the state mine inspector and by the mining operator. I had to meet with the client and reconstruct the scenario that led to the accident. Had I not left the firm, I would have soon visited the site of the accident.

Prior to that case, I knew nothing about mining. Within a couple months, I knew a lot, enough to get by with mining officials and sound educated. In teaching myself about the mining industry, I had repeated a pattern that began with my very first case as a new lawyer, one that involved the trucking industry. On the day the partner handed me the case, I knew nothing about trucking. Two months later, when the matter was resolved, I knew details about shipments, driver orientation programs, safety precautions, and the ways that drug runners try to hide and ship drugs across the border.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two examples after writing about Ignatian education in the age of YouTube (post here). I think the examples are quite helpful for those of us struggling to adapt high school to the modern world. In short, my experience as a lawyer and in law school may give direction to those of us discerning the value of a traditional classroom in light of online alternatives.

To explain why, I have to recall an obvious point: students can find an extraordinary amount of information away from campus. Facts and figures that used to be solely in textbooks now sit at thousands of websites or in hundreds of apps. YouTube teaches everything from graphic design to car repair to the history of World War II. School as a conveyor of information is losing its value. It’s no longer — and hasn’t been for many years — the only forum where students get educated. (To be clear, I am not saying that school is simply about gathering information. Obviously, as an Ignatian educator, I believe school is about far, far more than that.)

Jesuit educators anticipated this long ago. In “The Jesuit High School of the Future,” published by the Jesuit Secondary Education Association in 1970, the authors called for a shift in the classic model of school. We must move “away from an emphasis on the school as a communicator of a static, clearly defined body of information to a vision of the school as a center where students ‘learn how to learn.'”

“Learning how to learn.” Though school has always been a place for that, this idea now is — or must become — a superseding priority. Let’s face it: much of the content will be forgotten; much of the content will change; and much of the content can be accessed elsewhere. But what is not so easily forgotten or obtained elsewhere (in addition to the personal and faith formation) is a set of skills which enable students to be — endure the cliché — lifelong learners. Reality confirms an aphorism: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

What does that look like? Where do we find a model for creating lifelong learners? I imagine there are dozens of places, but  here I nominate law school (the media has criticized law school recently as a stupid investment, but law school can be outstanding choice if people attend for the right reasons). One of the chief tasks of law school is to prepare students for variety. Content is important: you have to know certain cases and basic constitutional theories. You have to know some civil procedure and matters that are essential for passing the bar exam. But there is no way three years of law school can teach someone all that is necessary for practice. Law school couldn’t teach me about mining or trucking, or about physicians’ groups, prison systems, construction, or any of the other businesses and industries that I encountered in commercial litigation. What law school did, rather, was teach and hone skills: how to write, how to think, how to distinguish, how to question, how to examine and weigh competing theories, and how to overcome one’s own ignorance about a particular subject or area of knowledge.

Law school gave me the confidence to meet with doctors and trucking executives and talk their language. It gave me a framework, a set of principles, for enlightening the unknown. And after I left the practice of law to teach, the skills I had learned in becoming a lawyer enabled me to teach scripture and understand (among many new things) curriculum development. I had no training in curriculum, but I had practice in confronting new subjects, in searching for expertise, and then in applying that expertise to my particular situation. In short, I had training in learning how to learn: exactly what we are hoping to impart to our students.

How might the law school model be adapted for high school? What are some principles, or techniques, that Ignatian schools might borrow? I hope to answer these questions in my next post.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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