Utility Law School v. Utopia Law School

The NYTimes recently ran a piece asking "What is the Point of College?" The author put college in two categories: utility university and utopia university.

One vision focuses on how college can be useful — to its graduates, to employers and to a globally competitive America. When presidential candidates talk about making college more affordable, they often mention those benefits, and they measure them largely in dollars and cents. How is it helping postgraduate earnings, or increasing G.D.P.? As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility U.

Another vision of college centers on what John Stuart Mill called ‘‘experiments in living,’’ aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women. Here, college is about building your soul as much as your skills. Students want to think critically about the values that guide them, and they will inevitably want to test out their ideas and ideals in the campus community. (Though more and more students are taking degrees online, most undergraduates will be on campus a lot of the time.) College, in this view, is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project, the pursuit of happiness. Welcome to Utopia U.

Together, these visions — Utility and Utopia — explain a great deal about modern colleges and universities. But taken singly, they lead to very different metrics for success. at Utility U., one obvious way to better your ‘‘value proposition’’ is to cut costs. 

If Utility U. is concerned with value, Utopia U. is concerned with values. At Utopia U., the aim is to create a safe space, to check your privilege and suspend the prejudices of the larger world, to promote human development and advance moral progress.

Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus.

While reading this article, the evolving vision of law school kept creeping in. Law school is a professional school where lawyers should learn the nuts and bolts of practice and be mindful of ROI. In this way, law school should be seen as an investment of value. But law school is also about learning to "think like a lawyer" and develop the values that society needs in its bar. In this way, law school should be seen as an investment of values.

What we're seeing in the downturn is that many law schools are starting to look like something more akin to Utility U. With slashed budgets, it's hard not to touch the programs that add intrinsic values when monetary value is at stake. In other words, it's difficult to be utopian in austere times. As mentioned, neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. totally encompasses any one school, but we need to be mindful of the balance to guide the law school well into the future.

The Chronicle of Higher Education put it best when a recent article sad:
[T]he only plausible raison d’ĂȘtre of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture: a world of ideas dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. In our society, this world is populated mainly by members of college faculties. Law, medicine, and engineering are included to the extent that they are still understood as "learned professions," deploying practical skills that are nonetheless rooted in scientific knowledge or humanistic understanding. Support for our current system of higher education makes sense, therefore, only if we regard this intellectual culture as essential. Otherwise we could provide job training and basic social and moral formation for young adults far more efficiently and cheaply.


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