Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wisdom from whatever source derived

In commentary on "Law school diagnosis" and in a post on his own blog, James Edward Maule suggests, only partly in jest, that Harvard Law School's vaunted curricular reform proposal can be duplicated by the simple expedient of teaching a basic course in federal income taxation as a required component of the first year:
Income taxMuch time and effort could be saved, and the same worthwhile goals accomplished, by moving Introduction to Federal Taxation, as many of us teach it, into the first year. What's in the package? Constitutional law analysis? Yes. Administrative law principles? Yes. Statutory and regulatory analysis? Yes. Application of law to facts? Yes. Problem solving? Yes. Planning to avoid problems? Yes. Discussion of ethical considerations? Yes. Awareness of client needs? Yes. Development of interviewing and counselling techniques? Yes. Attention to international issues? Yes. Incorporation of business, social, economic, and political facets of the topics? Yes.
I will now construe this suggestion as a serious proposal for reforming the first year curriculum.

Jim Maule isn't the first person to suggest the inclusion of a basic income tax course in the mandatory first-year curriculum. Many, many years ago, back when she and I shared an employer, Karen Burke made the same suggestion to me. There's much to recommend the idea. Most students will take basic tax eventually; those who do not almost surely should. Jim and Karen are right: the course is filled with potential. It has everything a law school course should have, plus the added bonus of being relevant to the future professional interests of virtually every law school graduate. As an inveterate generalist, I've always been fascinated by the idea of adding tax to my teaching repertoire. It covers the full range of business law issues and provides the perfect platform for considering, at the highest manageable levels of abstraction, the very purposes of government. In teaching law students, we should happily accept wisdom from whatever source derived.

There is only one problem. Unfortunately, I think it's insurmountable.

H. Vogel, Suicide of Brutus (an illustration in 1 John Clark Ridpath, History of the World (1885))
First-year students, when asked to extract abstract principles -- legal process, canons of interpretation, some sense of common law versus statutory or regulatory lawmaking, etc. -- in favor of substantive doctrines from a law school course will extract . . . substantive doctrines. I haven't decided whether the reason for this lies in the nature of American undergraduate education or in some debilitating facet of legal education. It might be even worse. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our schools, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

For purposes of deciding whether to include income tax -- or admiralty or worker's compensation or insurance or any other substantive subject -- to the first-year curriculum as our students' introduction to legislation and legal process, none of this matters. What does matter is whether we can use tax or any other substantive subject as a sneaky back door to teaching a rigorous course in legislation, legal process, or "the administrative state." In my experience, we can't.


Anonymous ZS said...

Law School students extract only legal principles from classes because that is what they are tested on. It may be too much for professors to expect much more from their students. This is especially true because law school is merely a means to an end for the vast majority of law students. I do not think that it is insurmountable to teach these skills through a backdoor; it is just insurmountable to teach theses things through a backdoor to 1Ls who are scared, tired, and toog reen to care about much more than doing well on the exam.

The unfortunate truth is that I only acquired these skills (or at least think I did) while taking esoteric (or more esocteric that trusts and estates and ba/corps) courses that interested me and had dynamic professors. In my opinion, there are too few of these classes and professors at most schools.

10/24/2006 3:18 PM  
Blogger James Edward Maule said...

It is very true that if not taught properly, first-year law students will try to extract "rules of law" and "answers" from *any* substantive course (including torts, criminal law, contracts, etc.). That's perhaps one reason they so dislike civil procedure.

You make a good point. Good curriculum design requires more than the appropriate selection of courses. I intend to write a short explication on MauledAgain of how I have been trying to use my courses to make students think in terms of mental processes, analogies, and holistic problem solving in lieu of mere rule-gathering.

Thanks for the insight. It's a helpful inspiration to enhance the half-in-jest proposal.


10/24/2006 8:24 PM  
Blogger James Edward Maule said...

I followed up, focusing primarily on why students want to acquire substantive doctrine at the expense of everything else, and what can and should be done to deter that approach:



10/25/2006 9:14 AM  

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