“A falling angel”: reflecting on the Learning in Law Annual Conference – Day 1

The 2009 LILAC conference started at Warwick today with just over 200 delegates registered – a new record attendance! It is a packed programme, but here I just want to offer some preliminary and pretty much ex tempore thoughts on the keynote address. Professor Ian Ward of Newcastle University gave an engaging, often entertaining and highly thought-provoking presentation on the theme “Legal Education and the Democratic Imagination”. Ian would be the first to acknowledge that he is not first and foremost a scholar of legal education, though a highly experienced teacher of law, so for people like me, who have been doing legal education scholarship for far too long, it was good to have an outsider perspective on some of our debates. Ian did a great job, I think, in reviewing the literature on – and, as he put it, the anxiety still engendered by the basic question of purpose – what are law schools for? This is hardly a new question, but, so long as it doesn’t provoke a prolonged bout of navel gazing it can still serve a purpose in prompting us to really think about the whys and hows of our endeavour.

Having, with Roger Burridge, recently sought to re-ignite interest in the work of Yale ‘law and policy’ scholars Laswell and McDougal, I was interested to see that Ian’s paper also drew on them to justify the view that a primary aim of university education is to ‘promote’ the major values of democratic (liberal) society. This affinity between (legal) education and democracy was then drawn out by reference to the works of three philosophers: the arch pragmatist John Dewey, the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty and the Aristotelian Martha Nussbaum. The strong link between these philosophical traditions and educational constructionism was not specifically signposted, as it is in Paul Maharg’s recent work, though the conclusion is there to be drawn , and Ward’s conclusions are, I think, largely consistent with a constructionist viewpoint – an emphasis on education as a process of participatory and experiential knowledge-making, and a strong commitment to the ideal of education as a route to human flourishing, particularly through the construction of a deeper intersubjective sense of what it is to be human. Interestingly though, in this process, the emphasis in the paper seemed to shift from a notion of ‘liberal’ to ‘progressive’ legal education – conveying a sense that perhaps not all liberalisms are equally capable of delivering on the democratic imagination?

The paper then focused on the question of approaches to learning. Here Ian drew very much on the resources of his own experience as a teacher and writer within the genre of law and literature, and particularly in his recent work that is moving (as Ian has recently described it elsewhere) towards the construction of a ‘poethics’ of terrorism. I found this compelling; the idea that as lawyers we need to pay attention to Rorty’s ‘strong poets’ of the human condition and to nurture Nussbaum’s ‘narrative imagination’ makes a convincing case for placing literature closer to the centre of legal education. There was, I thought, a strong hint in the paper that Ian, along with many in the critical tradition saw the strangeness of the stranger, the very otherness of the Other, as a (perhaps the) key problem confronting modern social and legal relations. That is a position with which I have considerable sympathies, and I would accept, methodologically, the claim that what Nussbaum has called the art of ‘attentive novel reading’ can be a powerful resource in making the other more real and more proximate. And also more than that, I think. Paul Ricouer – one of our great thinkers on self and otherness, sees the self as derived fundamentally from its narrative location. An answer to the question “who am I?” comes not from some objective truth structure but from the stories in which the person is located. Reading, writing and exploring these stories thus becomes a powerful resource in understanding (constructing) the self qua self, and in relation to (or with) the Other.

Moving in a very obvious way beyond what Ian said, his presentation certainly had me thinking about the ‘how’ of engaging students in these stories. I’m sure there are some useful resources on this within the law and literature scholarship, with which I’m not familiar. I was drawn to another useful/challenging point Ricouer makes, which is that writing isn’t modelled on, and indeed cannot be understood on the model of speech. Writing he argues ‘intercepts’ the relation to the world and the relation between subjectivities that exist in the situation of speech. Writing in other words can be safer, more distant, perhaps more ‘cooked’ than speech. If we are going to treat an understanding of otherness as critical, I don’t think we should treat writing as a substitute for speech forms and perhaps images too that will bring the other closer. I guess I want a larger palette, and I don’t think its just about creating impact – though what it is about I’m less sure. Ian’s presentation brought this to the fore in an interesting way. Near the end he juxtaposed the awful, iconic, ‘falling man’ image from 9/11 with Don DeLillo’s description of the scene in his novel of the same name: “this picture burned a hole in her mind and heart, dear God, he was a falling angel and his beauty was horrific”. The power of each was reinforced by the juxtaposition, one that brought about, partly through language, a different way of not just ‘seeing’ the image but experiencing the event. I was struck, in a way for the first time, by a feeling that the horror of 9/11 as an experience came across actually more powerfully in the falling man than in the image of the planes’ collision with the twin towers, precisely because it reduces the scale of the catastrophe to the level of a single human being: an other that is also me. The potential to embed that kind of transformational – and transgressive – experience into learning about law seems both exhilarating and fundamentally destabilizing.


One response to ““A falling angel”: reflecting on the Learning in Law Annual Conference – Day 1

  1. I have to thank you for this enlightening post, Julian. I am currently drafting a research proposal which in part has education within it and I was searching for something to encapsulate what I was inchoately thinking. You reminded me of Lasswell & McDougal who should be reintroduced: they were behind some of the most fundamental thinking on human rights. It’s good to see education given values other than wealth maximisation and employability skills.

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