The Future of Education?

From today's WSJ, "Reading Law at Oxford":

Rather than being more formal than the lecture-driven, American undergraduate life to which I was accustomed, the British environment is more relaxed. In the intimate tutorials that are the main means of undergraduate instruction, an air of easy informality prevails. Rather than get hung up on rules and procedure, tutors focus on creating a stimulating intellectual exchange.

That's why I cringed when it came out this week that Oxford's colleges are drafting a new legal agreement, which they plan to compel all new undergraduates to sign beginning this fall. The lawyers fear the lack of a written contract leaves colleges too vulnerable to being sued by disgruntled students. Modest student fees are soon to be phased in on top of what has until recently been an entirely free public education (at least for British citizens). The fear is that an unhappy student might take his college to court for providing bad value for money, as if it were a construction contractor.

Students, just in case they haven't yet made up their minds, are asked to formally confirm that they "undertake to pursue satisfactorily" the course of study for which they are arriving. The document helpfully clarifies that "studies include the reading of materials." The college, for its part, promises to "make such teaching provision for undergraduates as it reasonably decides is necessary." The colleges also promise to provide library and computer access (except in "adverse circumstances") and meals ("from time to time").


Oxford's colleges do have reason to worry. In 2002, a student sued Wolverhampton University, claiming he was receiving substandard instruction, and adducing assignments with grammatical errors as court evidence! But the colleges, in trying to shield themselves with more legalese, have drawn the wrong lesson. The plaintiff in the Wolverhampton suit was a law student, and viewing his studies in legal terms was the start of all the trouble.

Once it is allowed in at all, the legal mindset increases in scope until it encompasses nearly everything. This process has already begun, with the president of Oxford's student council complaining that the contract needs to be made longer and more specific. She fears students are "at risk" if there are no contractual guarantees that they will be consulted on major decisions....

James Lindgren (mail):
This reminds me of my favorite Grant Gilmore quote:

The better the society, the less law there will be. In Heaven there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. The values of an unjust society will reflect themselves in an unjust law. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.
2.9.2006 6:06pm
Mike Z (mail) (www):
"Once it is allowed in at all, the legal mindset increases in scope until it encompasses nearly everything."

I'd say it has been doing that, for a long time, and the difference between "nearly" and "everything" grows vanishingly small. highlights the more bizarre effects of this trend.

Oxford College's lawyers are not without their own battlements: "... as it reasonably decides is necessary".
2.9.2006 6:25pm
Dan Simon (www):
As I pointed out four years ago, law professors who complain about their students suing them are not only hypocritically refusing to face the consequences of the plague they are unleashing on the world--they're also neglecting a spectacular pedagogical opportunity. If practical experience is integral to the training of physicians, teachers and even hairdressers, then why not lawyers?

If I were the dean of a law school (scary thought, that...), I would declare it official policy to give every student a final grade of zero in every course--unless compelled by a court order or the terms of a legal settlement to do otherwise. That may sound harsh, but in my opinion, a law student who can't figure out how to use the legal system to extort a law degree out of his or her law school clearly doesn't have what it takes to be a lawyer.
2.9.2006 8:22pm
Nobody Special:
"Indeed there is NO cumulative assessment here--an entire year's work is widdled down to a single, three hour exam, taken in the last week of school. Nothing else counts."

May I suggest an American legal education for you, good sir?
2.9.2006 9:22pm
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
Mr. Zywicki, I know you weren't thinking of the growing legalistic hysteria and 200 comments and growing threads on various blogs regarding law breaking, the resurrection of Hitler, the end of freedom as we know it, cats and dogs living together hysteria over the NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program, but I thought this part of your post described the situation quite well.

Here's the part I thought was quite apropos....

Once it is allowed in at all, the legal mindset increases in scope until it encompasses nearly everything.

Including all common sense and reason. Hence, the NSA hysteria, Kelo, and Roe.

Says the "Dog"
2.9.2006 10:57pm
John Jenkins (mail):
I've done pretty well on that distill 4 months into 3 hours plan. Sign me up!
2.9.2006 11:22pm
JGR (mail):
"In Hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed."

I can't help pointing out that the fifth season of the TV show Angel seemed rather explicitly based on this view. The supreme force of evil in the universe is a multi-dimensional law firm, and everything from torture to genocide is presided over with a punctilious regard to legal formalisms.
2.10.2006 12:53am