In Defence of the Technical Education and the Art of Law | By Kirsten Snell

Technical education means education for a profession, the antithesis to liberal arts. Education with a narrowly defined purpose, membership in a closed society for a fee, the continued desirability of which depends at least somewhat on the prospects of earning good money following graduation. I write to defend the technical education, specifically in law, as a means of following through on the knowledge and strength gained by studying the liberal arts.

I weep for the Australian, the Chinese, and the Swedish students who are permitted to enter the hallowed halls of law school immediately following graduation from secondary school. I only began to learn how to read when I was 17, and did not achieve a level of competence in writing until the third year of my undergraduate degree.

The founders of the North American legal education detected, as did Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, that “young Americans seemed… to be natural savages when they came to the university”. As a result, it seems, North American students are required to engage in studies on any subject at a post-secondary institution before being admitted into law. Are we alone in our savagery? Arguably this preliminary step threatens to exacerbate our position, as the Canadian student who scoffs at commerce and declines writing the LSAT may never reach a course on corporations or taxation. Although taking these courses would increase the occurrence of informed discussion regarding Bay Street “Banksters”, it could lead to acquiescence or endorsement of money motivation. Better to study navel-gazing global socio-economics or historical courses permitting critique without engagement.  No need to consider, from their perspective, how “the 1%” arrived there and what they do to stay.

I am being unfair. This Mode of Thinking based on questioning and critique comes to us from a magnificent lineage beginning, for the purposes of western philosophy, with Socrates, carrying through to Machiavelli, and ripening in Nietzsche. There may be danger in learning simply what is, and how to apply it, without reflecting on these things from different points of view, “just as (writes Machiavelli) those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains…” Herein lies the value of a liberal education prior to technical education in law: the student has been trained by educators whose lessons have stood the test of time to reflect seriously upon all sides of an argument, to compare a novel idea proposed today to those made over thousands of years, and to consider the essential and not merely social nature of the person proposing it.

It is not only scholars standing upon the plains who disparage technical education, but also those academic mountainfolk whose primary occupation consists of mining the peaks for golden souls. The Noble Lie of Plato’s Republic holds that all citizens of the city were born of mother earth, “yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious – but in the helpers, silver and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen” (414e-15c). It is an iron-souled sophist, the mountainfolk grumble, who is willing to submit his intellect to deadening tasks like reviewing contracts for the attainment of Money. Yet Socrates instructs some of the educated few, who have escaped the cave and taken an adequate view from the heights, to descend again and provide some distraction from the shadow puppet theatre of politics which governs the citizen’s lives (519d). Perhaps there is a place for the well-educated lawyer, if not among Plato’s philosopher-kings then at least among the guardians – my salvation depends on it!

Should your puppet show of virtue fail to inspire others, however, immense educational value may be extracted from your technical education in law. As a daily occurrence you will reflect upon the consequences faced by those who have obtained a principality by wickedness, on clemency, and fortune. You will do this with a liberal education as well. The difference lies in the application of these reflections. The Rule of Law is a tool wielded by few which bears a sharp edge, yet it is distinguished by its latent power. By your device and your advice the Banksters will acquire new Kingdoms, and you will likely acquire some yourself. You will prevent and persuade Princes in the governance of their subjects. And you will do it without needing or being able to resort to simple force or flattery. You will owe this freedom to your technical education, and may possess the wisdom required to use it prudently following your liberal education.

A common misconception regarding the technical legal education is that the knowledge it brings can be had by reference to a textbook or a bare piece of legislation. In fact, this legislation must be read in the same manner as the Anabasis of Cyrus: what is not said is as important, for many reasons, as the print on the page. Did you realize that the law which governs your life is rarely written out in lists at all? It is found in the winding words of a judge, who forms her decision in part from legislation, if it exists on that matter, and from the decisions of others before her on matters which are similar but never precisely the same. It is an ancient method employed with incredible success in Canada. Taken at its highest, our law is agile and graceful yet possessed of great strength.

The ideal conception of the Rule of Law is governance by objective standards which are clearly articulated, regularly challenged, and agreed upon democratically. That sharp tool and its inherent value is regularly exploited by those who received a narrow education in The Good Life prior to law school. However, a liberal education which informs one’s understanding of their technical, legal education is in my opinion, the best way to reach the heights. Furthermore, I do not believe it possible to build an understanding of the Rule of Law without immersing oneself in the study and practice of it. Opening the doors of law school to anyone with a passing interest in argumentation would damage this technical education just as it has damaged the liberal education in universities across the world. But mountainfolk take note: a humble technical education may provide a fine frame for the liberal arts.


Kirsten Snell studies law at the University of Victoria, and holds a degree in Political Science and Scandinavian Language and Literature from the University of Alberta. She spent the summer working at a national business law firm in Vancouver, and will return there to article following her graduation in 2014. For several years prior to joining corporate law she worked as a costumed historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park, reenacting the life of a farmer’s wife circa 1885.