I will state my thesis in the way I instruct students to state theirs — clearly, directly, and with several subparts that connect logically: A focus on justice-oriented teaching is ultimately harmful to students; it robs them of time to devote to higher educational priorities, it is antithetical to how legal thinking and reasoning should proceed, and it risks imposing a one-sided view of the world onto students. I appreciate that education can never be perfectly values-neutral, but the values we should mostly be instilling are process-based values and educational values over any subjective view of right and wrong. Different teachers will balance the goals of teaching values-neutral critical thinking skills and imparting values differently, but our current trend in legal education is, in my view, favoring teaching “justice” in a way that will ultimately be to students’ and society’s detriment.
Students enter law schools with varying exposure to, and practice at, hard reading, organized writing, and rigorous thinking. Many need a great deal of time to learn these skills, which are essential to not only practicing law, but to forming informed and well-reasoned opinions on any subject. Our top priority should be educating students so they can form their own opinions. Reading, writing, and thinking are skills that can be developed in a fairly values-neutral way that benefits everyone, if a professor is committed to the endeavor. Watching students develop in their ability to articulate their thoughts and fully engage with others’ communication is one of the purest joys of teaching.
The skills needed to read, write, and think well involve reasoning in a deductive way (that often must be results-independent), organizing thoughts into clear frameworks, transitioning adeptly from the abstract to the concrete, fully considering the implications of a given rule or result, and harmonizing assumptions inherent in a particular path with prior ideals and rules. These skills exist in great tension with the way justice-oriented pedagogy often proceeds – through anecdotal stories that are (rightly) emotionally charged. This vehicle for teaching justice is antithetical to teaching rigorous, systemic thinking about causality, or imploring students to ensure that their views are internally consistent and fully considered and developed. A focus on justice, in my view, is easier intellectually and more satisfying emotionally, which is why it is appealing to students (and many professors). This is not, I believe, the main priority of education, which is to challenge students and make their reasoning processes more responsible and responsive.
Of course, we cannot ignore that the law affects people, in the deepest and most consequential ways. Our system has been, and remains, flawed and often, unjust, according to any reasonable conception of morality (which can be studied in an intellectually rigorous way, but that is often the domain of philosophy). Students need to understand the benefits and drawbacks of any particular legal doctrine, judicial opinion, legal institution, or legal regime. These tradeoffs should be explained to students, who should be permitted to discuss them. But providing students with material that gives a one-sided account or assumes particular conclusions risks imposing a particular view of justice, which is ultimately a subjective concept.
At a very meta level, this is unavoidable. Our legal system has several, almost inevitable components. We believe in the rule of law (or at the very least, we must write briefs and behave as if we do); we understand that the common law develops incrementally, and we elevate the adversarial process. All of these views can also be challenged, but some amount of acceptance of them is necessary to teach legal doctrine and the case method. Fortunately, these are process-based values sufficiently far removed from any given result as to compromise students’ learning critical thinking, legal reasoning, and independent opinion-forming.