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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Students and their pre-existing knowledge

Here is an interesting Slate piece by James Lundberg, a history professor at Sacred Heart University. Lundberg teaches a course on the Civil War, which is always packed with students whose interest, knowledge, and understanding of the Civil War has been formed by watching Ken Burns' landmark 1991 PBS documentary, which Lundberg argues was brilliant but deeply misleading.

This triggered for me an interesting concern/problem for us prawfs: How much pre-existing knowledge and understanding of the law, lawyers, and the legal system do students bring to the classroom, often founded on popular culture (Law & Order, etc.), cable talk shows, and (now) the internet? How much of that pre-existing knowledge is dead wrong--or, at the very least, grounded on a simplistic or misleading understanding of law and the legal system? And what, if anything, should we do about it?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 9, 2011 at 09:49 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I also have to wonder how many of our students would even embark on the jounrey that is law school without this mythos about law and lawyers. I had no clue when I began what was ahead of me.

Posted by: Mike Bauer | Jun 10, 2011 8:31:47 AM

I try to mockingly refer to "TV law" whenever I can, thereby getting students to distrust any notion about the law they've picked up from TV or films. I think probably the most harmful impression is that lawyering should be done in hyper-aggressive, insulting mode all of the time. Students and young lawyers generally don't have a good mental image for other techniques.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jun 9, 2011 12:25:14 PM

I started watching Law & Order in about 1999, and always in TNT reruns, so I was always several years behind the times, and pretty much won't watch anything post Dennis Farina in for Jerry Orbach. That's only to say that I love Law & Order. But I have to admit that the dramatically required style of argument in which the lawyers interrupt each other continually is a threat to my willing suspension of disbelief. I don't do moot court or other first year writing and advocacy, but wonder whether that's a piece of popular culture that has to be corrected.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 9, 2011 11:34:30 AM

I find that much of what students pick up from popular culture regarding the law relates to procedure rather than substance. Since they have little emotion vested in those matters, they are easily enough disabused. Lundberg's piece, however, also suggests that certain cultural knowledge can evolve into mythos that substitutes for reality. I see this relating to my teaching in two respects. First, students often have a popularized notion that the law's sole pursuit is of "justice and truth." While we aspire to this, the law is far more pragmatic. Getting some students to accept this can be difficult, as they may believe, for instance, that tort a defendant should be liable notwithstanding the absence of actual or proximate cause because it seems untuitively unjust to excuse the defendant's otherwise faulty conduct. Second and in contrast, cultural assumptions can be a tool to deepen student understanding. By confronting the fallacy of certain cultural assumptions and pointing out shere they might infect certain legal opinions, we provide a critical insight into law, fact based adjudication, and objective analysis that might otherwise be more difficult to convey. The serious problem arises, however, among those students who refuse to let go of their mythological view of the world. I find that it sometimes takes long discussions in my office to get through to these students.

Posted by: Derek Black | Jun 9, 2011 10:27:03 AM

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