Examining the Law Syllabus: The Core

By P. B. H. Birks; Society of Public Teachers of Law (London, England) | Go to book overview

17. Intellectual Skills at the Academic Stage1: Twelve Thesis

WILLIAM TWINING

1. While first degrees in law in the United Kingdom serve as multi-purpose feeders to a variety of occupations and are used by a majority of undergraduates as the first stage of preparation for a career in law (or at least for qualifying as a private practitioner of law), the primary educational function of such degrees within our system is and should be to provide a good general education in the discipline of law.

2. There is no single model for what constitutes a good general education in law; indeed, our system exhibits a generally healthy pluralism (both within and between undergraduate programmes) that is worth conserving; however, there is widespread acceptance of certain classical values of liberal education that can serve as standards by which to evaluate any particular programme, e.g., encouraging free inquiry, breadth of perspective, capacity for independent thought and critical judgment, clear thinking and learning how to learn.

3. The biggest threat to a liberal general education in law at the academic stage comes from pressures to overload the curriculum, both in respect of the number of courses and what is covered within courses. These pressures come from a variety of sources both within and outside the academy. Current pressures include the lengthening of the list of vocationally desirable options, e.g. EC Law, Company Law, Evidence, Intellectually Property, and the move from 'knowledge-based' to 'skills-based' training at the vocational stage (the potential 'knowledge backlash'). They also include pressures to take skills more seriously at the academic stage, especially generic intellectual skills, such as the ability to express oneself clearly orally and in writing, to conduct research, to construct and criticize arguments, and basic numeracy. The pressures to extend coverage of substantive subjects and to improve the development of generic intellectual skills are, generally speaking, incompatible.

4. Most University and Polytechnic law teachers say that they wish to give a high priority to the development of generic intellectual skills.2 They claim that 'we are in the skills business too' and that it is one of their aspirations that all law graduates should be able to read, write, think, argue and use a law library. Some would add 'to solve problems and to count'. How far such aspirations are realized in practice is an open question.

5. There is no necessary incompatibility between the development of generic intellectual skills and the central values of general liberal education'3 indeed much of the classical liberal tradition was skills- based, for example, the emphasis on logic, grammar and rhetoric, mastery of languages, and intelligent, critical reading of texts. Nor is there any necessary conflict between good liberal education in law and a good vocational preparation for practice.4 In my own teaching, when given the chance, I try to encourage students to learn how to do things with rules, how to do things with facts, how to do things with texts ( The Reading Law Cookbook),5 and to do jurisprudence, not just to learn about it. All of these are intended to further the aims of one kind of general, liberal education in law.

6. 'Skills based' curricula are just as susceptible to overcrowding as 'knowledge-based' curricula, as is illustrated by the ever-expanding inventories and lists of desirable skills that characterize current discussions in legal education and training.

7. Methods of assessment should as far as is feasible be designed to test clearly articulated learning objectives in fair, appropriate and efficient ways. This applies to both 'policing' and 'developmental' assessment,6 as much in degree programmes as in other sectors of legal education and training.

8. For a variety of reasons (including considerations mentioned in 1-3 above), under present conditions it would probably be unwise to add even a short list of 'core skills' to the core subjects at the academic stage. It would be even more unwise to try to mandate a list of specific legal techniques. It would, however, not be surprising to find a

____________________
1
There are conceptual difficulties surrounding 'skills' and related terms, see Mackie in Gold, Mackie and Twining (eds) Learning Lawyers' Skills ( 1989) at 9-11. This paper is concerned with a range of abilities, sometimes referred to as 'generic intellectual skills', in a particular context. It assumes rough working distinctions between know-what, know-how and know-why, but see below thesis 11. It is neutral on the issue whether all or most such generic skills can be subsumed under a general concept of 'problem-solving', a question which should be high on the agenda for research.
2
McFarlane, Jeeves and Boone, "'Education for Life or Work?'", ( 1987) New Law Journal, September 4th, 835-6.
3
This is argued at length in ( 1988) 22 The Law Teacher 4.
4
Karl Llewellyn, "'The Study of Law as a Liberal Art'". Junsprudence ( 1962) ch. 17.
5
Reprinted in Twining and Miers, How To Do Things with Rules ( 3rd edn., 1991), Appendix iv. Discussed in Twining. "'Reading Law'", 24 Valparaiso L. Rev. 1 ( 1989).
6
This distinction is developed by Patricia Haswtt in a forthcoming paper on "'The Role of Assessment in The Continuing Professional Development of Lawyers in England and Wales'".

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