Slouching toward dinosaurs. . .

I have had several conversations lately with people my age (60)  about whether and how age is changing them.  There are those who hold to the “age is only a number” mantra, and those who claim to be perpetually 42 in their own mind’s eye.  I am not one of them.  I feel my age; not my old age, but I am even starting to understand that a little better too.

Unbelievably to me, one of the effects of age is that I am starting to understand and even sympathize with dinosaurs.  Not real, but metaphorical ones.  The dinosaurs in my world are found mostly among my colleagues at work.  Change has come to legal education and the practice of law; change has been largely ignored but now, with its drastic economic consequences, can be ignored no longer.  And so  in one of the most tradition-bound settings in the world–law school–people are seeking to reinvent legal education for the future.  Or hold fast to the past.

I have been a law professor for 32 years, and spent all of my time not just railing against tradition, but viciously beating it back at every possible turn.  I  developed an educational program within the law school that used alternative teaching methods that were grounded in actual practice experience and adult learning theory.  What a grenade to have thrown in such an environment, complete at times with the blowback inevitable to the grenade-tosser.  Among the tradition-bound, my efforts, even when successful, and my thinking, even when clear, have been dismissed.  “Not what legal education is for. . .” the traditionalists  have grumbled over decades.   And still they grumble louder, because the tide is turning, and we, believers in this particular grenade, are becoming more mainstream. 

You might think I would be gleeful.  I am . You might think I would gloat.  I don’t, much.  Because as my own philosophy and pedagogy move ever more toward their rightful center, there is a new generation of grenade-tossers.  They want legal education to take place on screens, individual by individual,  in front of keyboards or touch pads, from remote locations.  So 21st century, they exclaim, not to mention cheaper. More democratic, as it allows people who cannot afford a 3-year campus experience to earn a law degree.  No worries, they say, the technology actually allows the individuals, home alone with their computer screen, to “talk” with each other online.  Besides, we can have them come face-to-actual-face for a whole week when we bring them to campus in the spring. 

Shouldn’t lawyers be able to relate to real people, like classmates, and professors, and well, . . .clients?  I recall all of those studies, real or made up, that say that young people are losing their social interaction skills because they are glued to their screens.  I think about how carefully I try to train my students to conduct interviews with a warm bodied-client across from them, or to negotiate while reading the other side’s facial expressions and body language. Or simply to sit in a room and listen and speak appropriately with other humans.  Not to worry say the new grenade-tossers, not all that important.  When I press and ask how training by screen will produce lawyers who can interact in a real-two-or-more-humans-in-the-same-room professional setting, they say cheerfully, who says the practice of law will take place in settings requiring human interaction?  Maybe we will all practice via screen.  Better brush up on your screen skills, and better yet, make sure your students have them;  if they don’t, the education you are providing them may make them unsuitable for practice in the (near) future. 

Back to the the dinosaurs who have griped about me and mine.  They used to annoy me.  I am now feeling sympathetic, and this is the surprising part, because I am becoming one of them.  A different dinosaur, maybe, of a different era, whose inability or unwillingness to adapt is based on different changes in the environment.  But the life’s arc, from grenade-tosser to mainstream acceptance to the warding off of the next generation of grenade-tossers. . .I am starting to see parallels in the lives of those grumpy old men and my own.  Not that I consider myself grumpy, because, yea I believe I am right.  All dinosaurs, and dinosaurs-in-the-making, do.

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