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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fuller on teaching law

As a kind of side-project, I thought it would be fun to go through some of the papers of Lon Fuller.  I recently came across a fragment of an old piece of his from 1950 titled, "On Teaching Law," in the Stanford Law Review.  The paper (probably delivered as a talk) is of course dated at several points.  But it's interesting nonetheless for its reflections on the problems of legal education at another moment in time.  Here's a fragment:

Herein lies a dilemma for student and teacher. The good student really wants contradictory things from his legal education. He wants the thrill of exploring a wilderness and he wants to know where he stands every foot of the way. He wants a subject matter sufficiently malleable so that he can feel that he himself may help to shape it, so that he can have a sense of creative participation in defining and formulating it. At the same time he wants that subject so staked off and nailed down that he will feel no uneasiness in its presence and experience no fear that it may suddenly assume unfamiliar forms before his eyes.

No teacher is skillful enough to satisfy these incompatible demands. I don't think he should try. Rather he should help the student to understand himself, should help him to see that he wants (and very naturally and properly wants) inconsistent things of his legal education. Much frustration will be avoided if the student realizes that an unresolved antinomy runs through his education, and that this antinomy cannot be resolved so long as men want of life, as they do of the preparation for life called education, both security and adventure. 

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on September 27, 2012 at 11:38 AM | Permalink


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Interesting, Marc. I wonder if the broader context can help in how to parse this bit. Fuller says,

" Rather he should help the student to understand himself, should help him to see that he wants (and very naturally and properly wants) inconsistent things of his legal education."

Does he mean that the professor should help the student, his very own self, to understand that the wants these things, or does he mean that the professor should do two things, to help the student understand himself, and also to see that (perhaps when he understands himself?) he wants these two different things? Maybe the difference between them is small, but I'll admit to being a bit uncomfortable with the idea that the law professor's job is to help students understand themselves, so I hope he was just, in a slightly un-precise way, saying the first thing.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 27, 2012 12:05:56 PM

Matt, thanks for the good comment. In context, I think Fuller was saying the first thing. But this is only a fragment of a larger set of (somewhat discrete) points he was making in this talk, so I am not certain. I also agree that the first meaning is the one that I thought interesting (I agree with your discomfort as to the second meaning); I think he was trying to say something about the aims of a legal education which are somewhat in tension.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 27, 2012 12:23:18 PM

You just love unresolved antinomies, don't you?

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 27, 2012 1:08:44 PM

Yes, but no more than your typical Figgis aficionado.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 27, 2012 1:25:33 PM

What a great find! I am going to use it in class today with my first years. My mantra in Contracts has sometimes been WWFS--What Would Fuller Say. Thanks!

Posted by: M. Baradaran | Sep 28, 2012 12:38:44 PM

I published an article about a decade ago that concluded that Corbin's desire to have Fuller take over Corbin's contracts casebook so that Corbin could concentrate on his contracts treatise fell apart (post-contract!) because Corbin didn't agree with Fuller's decision to teach rememdies first. Here's the citation: "Corbin and Fuller's Cases on Contracts (1942?): The Casebook That Never Was," 72 Fordham Law Review 595 (2003).

Posted by: Scott Gerber | Sep 30, 2012 1:05:00 PM

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