Thoughts on Education
Bill Long 8/31/04
I have spent most of my adult life learning and thinking about learning. For those of you who are now in your 20s and 30s, with your future beckoning you and hope fueling those long days and nights of study, you will be spending most of your future learning in different ways than you are being taught in law school. Three realities of the educational future that I will try to bring into this class are: (1) the importance of the Internet; (2) a focus not on long essays and books but on shorter treatments of various themes; and (3) aesthetically-appealing formats for the information that you learn. All of these points are indebted, I believe, to a post-modern spirit of the times with respect to learning, a spirit that will dawn on law schools rather too late to do you any good.
The Central Importance of the Internet. You may not think that I am really telling you anything through this point, but I believe that the Internet is not yet set up to be a useful educational tool but that it can be and will be, and that we can contribute to that development. Let me start with an illustration. Television was developed after WWII, and the first Presidential campaign in which it was used at all was 1952.
Presidential historians say that for this first campaign, however, people used television as if it was just radio with a camera. That is, candidates and others would read speeches, sitting stiffly and occasionally glancing into the monitor. The new technology was first greeted with the sense that it was only the old technology with a visual dimension. The same is happening with the Internet now. Most people see it as an educational tool, to be sure, but only because it is a repository that perhaps substitutes for a library or for the US Reports. To this end, law reviews publish entire articles on the Internet and scholars publish long, annotated papers, oblivious to the reality that the Internet is as different a mode of communication from libraries and journals as is television from radio. Once this realization dawns on you, you will begin to ask the question, 'In what way can the Internet function as an educational tool?' I will give you my answer in my second point, below, but this must be your question.
Let me suggest a few ways that the Internet has already changed our understanding of learning. First, it makes us turn there first before going to a dictionary, a library, a book on the shelf, a reference tool. It makes us do it because it is so easy to use and so full of information. People may be suspicious of the quality of information online, and indeed, there is a lot of useless material there (as there is in any library), but if you know what you are looking for or develop experience in searching, you usually know when you are getting bad information. So, we now turn to the Internet first for basic information.
Second, the Internet breaks down the barrier between "scholarly" learning and any other kind of knowledge-gaining that we want to do. In the same repository, with the same easy access, is information on common law causes of action, planting hydrangeas and the up-to-the minute number of career strikeouts that Randy Johnson has notched. It is all there, very quickly and easily accessible.
Third, there is lots of good legal stuff there already. All the recent cases are there. Because law firms need to attract clients, many of them have highly sophisticated web pages that analyze a particular area of law in more depth than any one law school course. Public agencies have extensive web sites that provide instant information about personnel, processes, decisions and consumer information that was unheard of even 10 years ago. Anyone with a brain must realize that the ease and potential extent of information on the Net is the most revolutionary reality for learning since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. So, making the Internet a central reality in our learning must be the focus of lots of our thinking. How can we do it?
The Focus on the Mini-Essay. I think the key to making the Internet fully user-friendly in a sophisticated way is to do what the City of Salem should do with respect to its downtown: not arrest young people who hang out, but fill the downtown with attractive venues so that non pierced people (or, let us say, tastefully pierced people) will want to spend hours downtown and either drive out the kids or, better yet, overwhelm them with our numbers. What this means as applied to the Internet is that people need to focus on putting quality material on the Net. And, in what form? My answer to this question is the concept of the mini-essay. A mini-essay, in my definition, is something less than 1000 words that gets to the heart of a single question of study.
I am committed to the notion of the mini-essay as the primary learning device for the future because it comports with the way the Internet dispenses information and the way most people want to use the Internet: to surf or read briefly, but not to turn the afternoon into reading Anna Karenina on the net. Most of you in your 20s and 30s, I venture to say, would much prefer a three-page essay on something than a casebook or a book on something. Of course, there will always be room for books and a market for avid readers, but I think the dominant reality of how you will learn in the future will be through short memos, case summaries (Ok, you have to read the WHOLE thing, of course, if you are arguing before an appellate court!) and other short forms of communication.
Here is the rub. You are learning from professors, many of whom are not only admirable and accomplished scholars but also very fine people, who were brought up in a different world. My generation was brought up on the world of books, on electric typewriters, on card catalogues, on key cites in paper volumes, on digests and weighty encyclopedias. We were brought up on the notion that a law review article is the "coin of the realm," even if no one reads it. But, I think that this is not the future. Of course there will always be distinguished law reviews and books. Television didn't force radio out of the market; it just made it "move over."
Thus, I have decided to spend most of my writing time these days in constructing mini-essays. It is not as if I don't write books (I have 10 of them to my name now), but I think the mini-essay is really the way that knowledge should be dispensed. Each mini-essay should take up a specific theme, perhaps a case to analyze, a text to plumb, a doctrine to clarify, a person to introduce, an idea to limn. It should provide a few quick and cogent points. It should leave you, the reader, with something tangible about the subject that you can chew on. It might even inspire you to go more deeply into the subject matter itself. This, then, is the challenge I have set for myself: to introduce the notion of the mini-essay to the world of the Internet. I don't believe it has caught on anyplace yet; I believe it will in 10 years and certainly by the time that you are established lawyers.
Aesthetic Appeal. I am running up against my 1000 words already, so I will be very brief on this point! Knowledge will need to be presented in a visually-friendly way to potential readers on the Internet. I try to do it through a pleasing type-face (by the way, Times New Roman works on books but doesn't work on the Internet), through colors that add to the page, through spacing and fairly narrow columns, through well-chosen bolding of the text. I am just learning the aesthetics of web page presentation, to be sure. But your generation wants, even demands, things to be aesthetically appealing for you to take notice of it. And, it will come. My generation demanded lots of money and physical pleasures for itself. Your generation wants things to "catch the eye."
This is enough for one mini-essay, don't you think?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long