Law in Contemporary Society

"Slaves ourselves, it would be a mere pretension to think of freeing others." -Gandhi

Originally by Tanya Sehgal - 27 Feb 2009

Rishi Valley School

While in India, I had the opportunity to visit one of India’s premier secondary schools, renowned both for its innovation and the professional success of its graduates. The Rishi Valley School is unique in its mission to supplement mastery of technical knowledge with critical self-reflection and to suggest that all knowledge must be understood in terms of its relationship with “people, things and ideas, to the whole of life.” For Jiddu Krishnamurti, the founder of the School, one-sided education that concentrates “very much on examinations, on technological information, on making the child clever, proficient in acquiring knowledge,” ignores the totality of the human experience.

Facts and rules doe not exist independent of our own minds; our interactions with knowledge are self-referential. We cannot come to terms with the people, things, and ideas we encounter without first understanding the personal filter through which we experience and reinterpret them. This means we should at least be aware of the personal influence on any recounted knowledge. In the law school classroom this means that we would be remiss to accept the facts as presented in the casebook. Each ruling is a representation of a judge’s personal interpretation of a jury’s conclusion about a witnesses’ memory of a long passed event.

Law School

The process is tragically human, as we learn when we take the exam and are given points not for coming to the correct conclusion, but instead by convincingly arguing for both sides. Logic and rational thought always cuts both ways. The pedagogy of law school, in addition to training critical thought, gradually makes us comfortable with defending positions our traditional morality may have balked at. If we learn to come to a result independent of the law first, and then use our learned logic (in the form of “the law”) to justify that result, it would make sense to dedicate a significant amount of time towards examining how exactly we come to our conclusions, and how well that process correlates with creating an ideal world. The law school, while not explicitly addressing this issue, through its subtle messaging (note, for example, the screens around the law school announcing the fact that Columbia has, yet again, ranked number one in placing graduates in law firms) makes its answer clear: come to the conclusion that your high-paying employer wants you to come to. And then we are only compromise away from being a n-year associate at X, Y & Z LLC.

Socratic Method

In place of ‘good’ and ‘just,’ we have been taught about rankings and prestige, and endeavor to do whatever it takes to achieve these status symbols. Instead of endeavoring for a more complex and subtle understanding of important legal issues, we take shortcuts and focus on studying for the exam. Instead of working together, our primary goal is always to do better than the person sitting to our left and right. In this state of constant competition, we never focus on actually bettering ourselves because we are so focused on looking better than our peers in very superficial ways such as grades and employers. Many of us came to law school to learn about Justice, or, more broadly, came to law school to learn about how best to structure our society in order to make it Good. The Socratic Method offers an opportunity to engage and interact with the material in a productive manner similar to that of Krishnamurti and the Rishi Vallye School. Socrates used his method of questioning to facilitate to the pupil’s examination of his own beliefs about the Good and the Just. He believed that the cultivation of virtue was the foundation of true knowledge and devoted himself to that cause. Competition, however, makes students fearful of the Socratic method, and that negates its true power to draw out constructive reflective analysis.

A Suggestion

We need to live fearlessly, and to ensure that we act not because we want to gratify our egos, but because we believe what we are doing is right. Insecurity and egomania are as endemic in the public interest sector as the corporate sector. In both worlds, we impose shackles on ourselves based on what we think we need, and what will satisfy our desire to feel important, and proceed mindlessly. We are taught to fear each other’s success. If we do not address that fear, we will never be sure that our thoughts and actions are aimed at creating a good society instead of simply serving ourselves. A legal education imparts a set of tools that have tremendous power in shaping lives and social norms. To give power without simultaneously instructing on how to wield that power with integrity is dangerous. My proposal, then, is to facilitate experiential learning, reflection, and relationship building by stepping back from the purely discursive and considering law as an aspect of a larger normative picture. A legal education should challenge the intellect, but a responsible legal education must also engage the personal interpretations that frame every legal argument and encourage self-reflective dialogue that focuses on the true motivations behind the law and on exploring appropriate approaches to legal issues as social issues.

  • I think this is beautifully edited. You left a couple of tiny errors to fix, but you did the central job of the editor, to keep what's strong and to strengthen what's weak, perfectly. You were exceedingly faithful to the language and intention of the original, but your reorganization and re-expression of the ideas made what was very problematical for the reader of the first draft easy for the reader of the second. Tanya was well-served in every respect by your edit, which also confirms the strength of your first two drafts of your own essay, where idea-generation, rather than presentation, was where the work needed to be put.

Original Paper: TanyaSehgalFirstPaper


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:19 - IanSullivan
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