Monday, April 14, 2008

A Note on Vocational Education

It’s late and I have other things to do, but I need to take a moment to scotch* a durable error. From RBC (via DeLong) (link):

Professor [John] Yoo is employed to teach a vocational subject, law. This isn't a prestige issue. Particle physics, cultural studies and remedial English fall on one side of the vocational/non-vocational distinction; law, medicine, nursing, flying training and plumbing school on the other.

I have nothing to add to the commentary about John Yoo. I do want to say a word about law school, or more generally, about legal education. RBC says law is a “vocational subject” on the other side of a “vocational/non-vocational distinction,” in contrast to, say “cultural studies.”

He has it backwards. “Vocational studies” work by apprenticeship; the student submits to direction from a master in the craft, and learns by example. That’s what they do in “cultural studies:” a teacher of cultural studies prepares students to teach other students of cultural studies (or, more precisely, to occupy a tenured position where he presents himself as if teaching studies, which may or may not be the same thing). The student learns by imitation; at the end, he is fit for nothing else. So also, I suspect, is the case with particle physics; it surely is the case with political science, sociology, economics and other kindred disciplines which lie perhaps closest to law (what on earth “remedial English” is doing on this list, I have no idea).

Law education is an entirely different matter. Law professors are enjoined to train students to be lawyers, which is one thing law professors are not. It is true that over the years law schools have been impelled (often by methods that leave them howling, although perhaps not actual torture) into offering instruction by apprenticeship. Of course l;aw professors aren’t in the least way qualified to teach law by apprenticeship, so we hire others to do it for us: these people are called “lawyers,” and while we allow them space in our institutions, it is often a grudging concession: for the most part we regard them with bewilderment and distrust, and we certainly don’t allow them a place at the head table.

So, what do law professors do, when they are not teaching by apprenticeship? They do a great variety of things. Economics is popular, or has been; it seems to be losing some of its vogue. Sociology had a heyday, and may be coming back into fashion. Sometimes, we do “cultural studies.” Our students complain in a perfunctory sort of way, but they’re really just going through the motions. They know perfectly well that we are gobsmackingly unequipped to teach them how to be lawyers. Besides, if the truth be known, they had more fun as undergraduates anyway. They expect to be lawyers sooner or later, but they aren’t particularly crazy about the idea, and they’re happy to put it off as long as possible. And sometimes they put it off all together: some of them learn by imitation, and go on to be professors.

Afterthought: I remember hearing a couple of years back that students at a major cooking school put up a rumpus when the faculty cut down on the number of hands-on classes and increased the offerings in "culinary arts." I wonder what happens in the schools of plumbing?

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*Scotch: cf. “We have scotch'd the snake, not killed it (Macbeth; Act 3, Scene ii).” So, to put down or thwart or confound a particular adversary, leaving it free to rise again.

1 comment:

New York Crank said...

My God! You're crankier than I am!

Yours somewhat less crankily,
The New York Crank