Commentary & Opinion
3:00 pm
Tue May 8, 2012

Stephen Gottlieb: What students need from higher education?

 

Students are choosing where to go to college. A college education is expensive but too many graduates come out of college without a skill set. What do they need from higher education?

Some students go through specialized programs and learn specific skills they can use – engineering, accounting, pharmacy, for example, are all undergraduate majors. And college gives students an opportunity to figure out which field of endeavor they will be willing and able to do well. But the information conveyed in specific majors may be much less helpful for careers that are not in that field.

Students can obtain a core that would work in a wide expanse of positions available to college grads – many even in the arts. I’ll add a couple of comments on what would help for future lawyers.

The core comprise tools of reasoning – especially introductions to ethics, the scientific method, and statistics. To all of which I’d add writing.

Moral reasoning is crucial to policy decisions in all fields – it refines goals. In law school, I’d appreciate a working knowledge of the main forms of moral argument so students can appreciate moral claims, and are equipped to work with others toward moral solutions. It’s not enough to focus on what seems right to you; people need to understand where others are coming from. There are major moral systems out there that students should be familiar with. Law always has a moral component.

Scientific method refers to an introduction to the logic of science, not merely courses in scientific phenomena or laboratory skills. Scientific method and statistics are fundamental to all western thought and a great deal of analysis we have to do. Formulas and conclusions matter for specific specialties, but the method is always helpful. Most analysis in the modern world is statistical at its base. It’s not enough to recite common canards about statisticians. Scientific method and statistics matter to understand how we can reach reliable empirical conclusions. They matter for lawyers in trying to understand cause and effect in our cases, what drives judges we appear in front of, what the experts are telling us, and it’s helpful for work on the rules and regulations many of us draft.

And students must learn to communicate. Everyone has to do that. Law or graduate school is too late to start to learn how to communicate clearly.

For law students, I’d add college level introductions to American and world history and social science so that they can better understand the background of law, including the meaning of constitutional, statutory and judicial language, and the problems they will have to deal with. Taking courses about law in undergraduate school may be interesting, fun, bring them into contact with some excellent teachers, or help them decide if law is for them, but once they get to law school, the right tools and background will prove much more important.

The central tools of reasoning and communicating are the central tools of a large range of fields in both public and private sectors. They should be what students are demanding – to come out of college with a skill set they can really use.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

 

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