What Kind of Education Do We Owe Future Generations?

by Neil H. Buchanan

My European adventure continues, even though my job status has changed while I have been over here.  (Hello, Florida!)  One of the reasons I decided to spend most of a semester on this side of the Atlantic was to work on a book project that I had set aside for quite a few years -- What Do We Owe Future Generations? -- which I discussed in two relatively recent columns here on Dorf on Law, one in late January and the other in early February.

I ended up presenting ideas for the book on what amounted to a speaking tour of the UK and some nearby countries (Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden).  The twelve talks mostly (but not always) went over quite well, and they all served the purpose of allowing me to think out loud and to receive questions and suggestions that will significantly move the project along.

My final gig was yesterday afternoon at the University of Gävle (pronounced YEHV-luh, more or less), a medium-sized city about 100 miles north of Stockholm.  Gävle is the home base of Gevalia Coffee (Gevalia being the Latin spelling of Gävle), and the city is known for a hilarious tradition known as the Gävle Goat.

It is also home to an excellent university, where I spent the earlier part of this week at a conference on sustainability organized by Dr. Yvette Lind (who is now leaving Gävle for the Max Planck Institute in Munich), who did the bulk of the work but who benefited from essential contributions by Dr. Mats Landstrom (an economist at Gävle) as well as a little bit of help from me.

Here, I will discuss a question that came up during the question-and-answer period, raised by (I think) a graduate student in the law department.  It helped clarify the issue raised in the title of this column: What kind of educational system do we owe future generations?

My main challenge in trying to write a book about such a broad subject (the future) is, of course, limiting the scope of the analysis.  Since everything that is going to happen will happen in the future (yes, that was meant to be trivially obvious), a book with a title like mine could easily become a "theory of everything" mess.  The question is how to find a non-arbitrary way to exclude some otherwise-interesting subjects while including others.

And I will be excluding some very interesting and essential policy matters, one prominent example of which is gun violence. Why leave that out, when 40,000 people are killed in the United States each year by guns -- and the sooner we solve (or at least reduce) that problem the more future people will live?  How is that not something that we owe future generations?

My answer (and, to repeat, this is all still in the thinking-it-through stage) is that an issue is about future generations only when we would answer "yes" to the question: "Should our approach to dealing with that problem change if we explicitly take into account the interests of future generations?"

The obvious example of an issue with long-future impacts is, of course, the environment.  If we did not think or care about future generations, we would feel comfortable trashing the planet and not worry about what we leave behind when we are long gone.  We should alter our behavior -- that is, make sacrifices on behalf of future people -- because an us-only orientation leads to long-term damage (of the sort that only Republicans in the U.S. are incapable of comprehending).

Why is gun violence not the same?  Because our answer to that problem will not change even if we suddenly think, "Oh, wait, what about future generations?"  Again, fixing the problem sooner saves more people, but that alone cannot make it a fit topic for this book project.

The reason that I have mentioned gun violence here (and in my lectures), however, is that it is a topic that is (quite smartly) being discussed politically as a generational challenge.  The surviving kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have had a great deal of success in framing their call for gun control as a moral obligation for their parents and grandparents.  "Guns are killing us, and we're just kids!" say the Parkland activists.

The Newtown massacre involved even younger children, and that too makes it politically savvy to appeal to people's sense of obligation to future generations.  I am thus delighted to see the success -- limited and preliminary success, to be sure, but still actual progress on an issue where we have seen nothing but movement in the wrong direction for years -- that this framing is helping to create.

Again, however, gun violence is almost the paradigm case of an issue that one would not approach differently in light of generational questions.  If gun violence was visited mostly (or most saliently) upon, say, people in their thirties, the political framing would change (and the emotional pull would surely be different), but the policy goal would be the same.

What about the educations that we are giving to those kids?  I plan to discuss K-12 in one chapter and higher education in another, but here I will focus only on higher education.  The problem is that, although higher education certainly seemed like a big and important topic in which intergenerational obligations would be a big part of the story, it was difficult to think of anything other than, "We need to provide more support for our universities and stop disinvesting in one of our most valuable assets."

That is certainly an important public policy issue, and -- as I discussed earlier this week when I announced my acceptance of Florida's offer -- I was delighted to learn that the third-most-populous state (and the largest purple state) is currently run by Republicans who seem to be genuinely committed to building up their state universities with real investments.

Beyond the essential idea that we owe future generations well funded universities, however, what else can one say?  My questioner in Gävle wanted to know about the content of the education that we should provide when future generations attend those well funded universities.  Content, what a concept!  And here is where the unexpected generational slant came in, because that question made me think about the broad approach to how higher education is carried out, specifically whether it should be essentially about job training or about a liberal arts education.

I am firm in my commitment to the idea that higher education should be about ideas, and teaching students to think critically and to love ideas is the point of all education, most especially in universities.  As I pointed out to my audience yesterday, I teach in what is arguably a trade school (that being what law schools are, although we prefer the term professional school, to make us feel more grand), yet I continue to believe that the much-disparaged "thinking like a lawyer" trope is actually the essence of what we should teach.

This means that, although I understand the reasons that "practice-ready" has recently become a buzzword in law schools, I think that we do our students the most good by helping them become critical thinkers.  The law school extension of the teeth-grinding "Will this be on the exam?" question (which still comes up in law schools, obviously) is "Just teach us the black-letter law!"  That complaint -- which law professors hear all the time, sometimes in the form of "Stop hiding the ball!" -- betrays a complete failure to comprehend what it means to study and understand the law.  Indeed, the students who cannot get past that type of thinking become worse lawyers than those who are able to grow up intellectually.

Back in 2011, at the beginning of the practice-readiness response to the great recession's impact on law schools, I critiqued a widely discussed Sunday New York Times front-page story in which a writer proved that he understood nothing about the way law is taught.  He mocked the idea that law schools require students to read old cases, focusing on one famous English case from the 1800's that is still covered in most U.S. Contract Law courses.

The message from The Times's writer was all about being practical, and he thought that surely a modern law school should teach students the most modern cases.  As I pointed out, that particular example was especially inapt for the author's argument, because in fact that English case's holding is the basis for a black-letter rule that is the current law in every state in the country in the twenty-first century.  As Rick Perry would say: Oops!

But the larger point is that even a case that is not currently enshrined in the law can be an essential part of teaching students how to think (at all, not just like a lawyer).  In my Federal Income Taxation classes, for example, I spend a lot of time on various cases that have no practical applications, because the bad reasoning in those cases can be so helpful in getting students to see deeper points about the law.

Yet there are still people who think that law schools should teach students how to file papers in court, in order to be practical.  I absolutely support clinical legal education, because it is an essential part of the law school experience that I would never want to take away.  But that is not because students file legal papers; it is because they learn how to write those papers and argue effectively both on paper and in court.

Which brings me back to my question about what kind of higher education we should be giving future generations.  The state of Wisconsin announced last year that it was cutting a large number of liberal arts programs on at least one campus of its university system -- core departments like English and History.  Why?  Because now-departed Governor Scott Walker and his allies decided that universities are only good for job training, and no one gets a job (supposedly) with an English major.

Even if we were not thinking about anything beyond the current generation of students, that would be a terrible idea, because it would cheat today's students of a real education.  Even so, one might argue that practicality is important enough that we do not need to support a full liberal arts education in our universities.

The idea is much worse, in any case, if we think about this from a multi-generational perspective.  One of the most important things that universities provide for society is a system in which knowledge continues to be created, whereas people like Walker apparently think that universities are only there to transmit the knowledge that exists.

When I say that universities create knowledge, moreover, I am not talking only about the things that we explicitly think of as research (in laboratories, in faculty workshops, and so on).  Just as important is the crucial role that universities play in developing all students' abilities to create knowledge and to understand it (and to critically evaluate good and bad arguments).

The Walker approach -- where he actually thought it was a great idea to remove "search for truth" and "improve the human condition" from the state's command to higher education, instead requiring that universities "meet the state’s workforce needs" -- amounts to a plan to turn higher education into a wasting asset, using up what generations of citizens have helped to create while failing to invest in the future.

We thus do not owe future generations "merely" a well funded university system (although even that has become too much to ask of many Republicans).  We also need to make sure that those universities create the future by continuing to teach people how to imagine it and change it.  That requires us to continue to sacrifice for the future -- not indulging our sense that everything is about immediate employment outcomes -- but the payoff will continue to be more than worth the cost.