Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Why the Liberal Arts Matter to Catholic Legal Education

Why bother with the liberal arts? Because the liberal arts are core to our mission as a Catholic university.  If we had to distill it to a very simple message, the liberal arts show that faith and reason have nothing to fear from each other.  But it’s deeper than that.

Pope Francis has explained that Catholic universities must help students face the questions of “why,” by linking knowledge with purpose.  Facing the questions of “why” implicates the “epistemological character of education which concerns the whole span of knowledge,” and “[t]he link between knowledge and purpose refers to the theme of intentionality and to the role of the subject in every cognitive process.” In other words, “Completely impersonal experiences do not exist.”

Let’s unpack that for a minute.

The role of the subject in every cognitive process.  So for a law school, one might be tempted to argue that a liberal arts approach is irrelevant – just teach me what I need to pass the bar exam and get a job as a lawyer: legal doctrine and technical skills, period.  One must resist this temptation because, if we want to educate for professional excellence, we have to help form the person, not just teach a trade.

And we have to help each student understand their own agency in who they are becoming as a professional.  They are not just passive vessels to receive information about Torts or Civil Procedure.  They have to be able to step outside their heads so that they can see themselves as an agent in the world, growing over time, pursuing alignment between their own gifts and values and the world’s needs.  Even a professional school is forming students for a dynamic lifelong journey.

So how does a law student get outside their own heads enough to critically evaluate and prepare for their own agency?  Well, it’s not by memorizing law.  It could be, for example, by seeing the relevance of other fields of knowledge to their own agency in legal practice.  So maybe it’s contextualizing their work in family law with an understanding of sociology, maybe it’s seeing how court rulings on religious liberty interact with the theological beliefs of those affected, maybe it’s recognizing the self-serving logic employed by those who wield power in our legal system by applying the insights of philosophy to uncover the incoherence of their justifications.  But more important than any of those more particular examples, I think it requires being drawn out into other narratives that open up new ways of thinking about their lives, not just their professional identities.

For example, I’ve assigned my students Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, not because they need to know about the 19th century Russian legal system, but because it is very helpful for them to lie next to Ivan Ilych on his death bed and reflect back on a life of devotion to the wrong things.  To lament time wasted on being impressive, on chasing prestige and status. 

Tolstoy can get my students out of their own heads long enough to think deeply about the life to which they aspire.  That’s good for them, and it’s also good for our world.   

C.S. Lewis wrote that:

[W]e need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. . . .  the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

I’d expand Lewis’s point.  A knowledge of history can help us discern and discount the nonsense of our current age, and a knowledge of other disciplines can help students discern and discount the overreading of insights from any one particular discipline – or maybe put more gently, can help them contextualize what a single discipline has to teach us about ourselves and the world.

Here’s an example of why this matters.  The first case our new law students read every year is Buck v. Bell, a 1927 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law permitting the forced sterilization of women deemed mentally incompetent. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote an opinion on behalf of the Court expressing concern that the offspring of the mentally incompetent would likely become criminals and would drain resources from society.  He concluded that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

A brand-new law student can bring to bear insights from the fields of history, economics, biology, philosophy, and theology to show why Justice Holmes was wrong as both an empirical and a normative matter.  So on the first day of classes at our law school, the most important discussion students have about the law is actually about the liberal arts.  It’s why forming the lawyer entails forming the person.  And it’s a journey of formation that is foundational to Catholic law schools. 


Vischer, Rob | Permalink