In last Tuesday’s Daily Journal (Sept, 25, 2018), Professor Frank Wu wrote another one of his thoughtful columns. I have long championed his views about the value of a liberal arts education as an integral component of legal education. Professor Wu wrote: “Legal education is regarded as a culmination of the liberal arts.”
Unfortunately, there is the well-founded notion that a liberal arts education is often the less traveled road to a well-paying job. Professor Wu wrote, acknowledging the “current jargon,” that some diplomas are perceived as “‘not a great’ return on investment.” This would include a liberal arts education. I list within the rubric "liberal arts," not just literature, but philosophy, history, music, dance, and the visual arts. Yes, a 36-hour day would help. And there is the argument that a study of the “arts” is imprecise, subjective, and of little or no utilitarian value.
Of course students are entitled and should be encouraged to pursue careers that could lead to lucrative employment. But the point Professor Wu makes is that a liberal arts education enhances and contributes to a legal education‑‑“above all it is preparation as a critical thinker.” And, I would add, it opens the minds of lawyers and judges to better evaluate and assess credibility of witnesses and to question one’s initial impressions. I base this premise partly on logic, as I see it, but to a large extent on experience. Thanks, Justice Holmes. And I acknowledge that the benefits that a liberal arts education may provide, including aesthetic pleasures, do not necessarily make a good judge or lawyer.
In my September 2018 column, I wrote about Judge Woolsey’s opinion in which he found James Joyce’s “Ulysses” did not violate the obscenity laws. (United States v. One Book called “Ulysses” (S.D.N.Y. 1933) 5 F.Supp. 182.) Some might ask, how does stream of conscious literature have anything to do with practicing law or judging cases? I suggest whether one is willing to take the time to struggle through some works of literature or not, the more one knows, the more he or she is likely to be professionally successful. As far as I can determine, Judge Woolsey did not major in English Literature. He is reported to have read “Ulysses” several times and written several drafts of his well-reasoned literate opinion, praised by literary critics. It proves a judge or lawyer can be highly qualified in all aspects of his or her profession without studying literature.
Of all writers, James Joyce’s stream of conscious style is a struggle for anyone, including Ph.D.’s in English Literature. And when it comes to “Finnegans Wake,” I think, maybe, I might do better with our Determinate Sentencing Law, or even… the Internal Revenue Code.
Speaking of literature and its value to the legal profession, pardon this strained segue to the recent film “The Children Act.” English poet Yeats’ poem “Down by the Salley Gardens,” binds a judge and a minor over whom she has jurisdiction. The screenplay and novel were written by Ian McEwan, and the film stars Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci.
The setting is London. Hard working, conscientious family law judge Fiona Maye must decide whether to allow doctors to give a blood transfusion to a minor, age 17, who suffers from leukemia and will die soon if he doesn’t receive the transfusion. The boy and his parents will not consent to the procedure. They are Jehovah Witnesses and their religion forbids blood transfusions. The boy is just shy of his 18th birthday, when he would be able to make his own decision. The boy and his parents do not want the transfusion. Counsel for the boy argues he is mature and so close to his 18th birthday that he should be allowed to make his own decision now. In an abundance of poetic license, the judge visits the boy in the hospital and they hit it off. The boy is bright and engaging. She takes his guitar and strums a few chords, while singing the words to Yeats’ “Down by the Salley Gardens.” Well, this is a movie. The judge returns to the court and orders the transfusion. It is in the best interest of the child and is what the law requires.
Friends wanted me to see the film because I happen to be a judge, and, like the judge in the movie, we both own and play a Fazioli piano. I have also read Yeats and had a similar case. Many other judges have had similar cases. Some of us had a liberal arts education. Some of us did not. We all came to the same decision. Some of us, however, were more terse in stating our rationale. Sometimes a code section and a case citation are sufficient.
Is Judge Maye any better or wiser because of her upper class education, her knowledge of Yeats, and her facility on the Fazioli piano? Wonder how Judge Woolsey would answer that question.
But that question may be beside the point. Professor Wu expressed one of the most profound insights in the third paragraph of his column: “At all levels of education, from high school to college to beyond, the capabilities once deemed necessary to function as a citizen in a democracy have come under existential doubt.” Take a look around you. Consider what is occurring throughout the country. An uneducated citizenry and one predominantly educated in solely technical skills put us and our democratic institutions at risk.