"The Inner Strength of our Social Order"

Law in the liberal arts and as a liberal art

Robert B. Ahdieh

The place of law in the liberal arts curriculum—and of the nature of law as a liberal art—are not new questions. More than fifty years ago, the late Harold J. Berman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor at the Emory University School of Law, saw in the study of law in the liberal arts curriculum “an opportunity and a challenge . . . which will serve not only scholarship in many fields but also the inner strength of our social order.”

In universities across the United States, courses in law are today a staple of the undergraduate curriculum. Consider the rich legal offerings of Emory College across an array of departments: American Legal System; Communications Law; Constitutional Law; Economics of Regulation; Greek and Roman Law; International Law; Islamic Law; Jewish Legal Thinking; Law and Biodiversity; Law and Economics; Law, Discipline, Disorder; Philosophy of Law; Psychology and Law; Sociology of Law; U.S. Legal and Constitutional History; and Women and the Law.

Relatively few universities, to be sure, offer the opportunity to major in legal studies, especially among the nation’s most elite institutions. Yet even among the latter, the place of law as a subject of systematic undergraduate study has increasingly been recognized.

Perhaps most strikingly, consider the program some have (erroneously, although Princeton has recurrently explored the possibility of establishing a law school) called “Princeton Law School”: Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs (LAPA). From 2007 to 2009, I was part of the LAPA community—variously as an undergraduate professor, research fellow, and visiting scholar. I was able to see firsthand the ways the systematic study of law in a liberal arts institution—in the hands of visiting professors of law and other disciplines, of permanent faculty members from the humanities and social sciences who specialize in the law, of graduate students exploring legal questions, and of undergraduates learning the law—could foster a community of legal analysis and thought with tremendous potential.

Something of this dynamic was once common at American universities generally, at a time when the study of law, even for legal practice, was an undergraduate course of study. It remains true in Europe, where law is still one of the most common undergraduate majors—alongside history, economics, and other staples of the liberal arts curriculum.

Against this historical backdrop, what can we understand law and the liberal arts to contribute to one another? In what ways might the systematic study of law be essential to the nature of the liberal arts university? And what might the framework of the liberal arts add to the foundations of legal study? Let us consider each pattern of influence, in turn.

Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, has suggested various reasons for law’s integration into study of the liberal arts. First, he points to the centrality of law in our culture and society. Law is among the most important media for the articulation of a community’s values. Even more, it is central to the resolution of its conflicts. This is not merely a question of lawyers as what Tocqueville described as “arbiters between the citizens.” More fundamentally, it derives from the “human tendenc[y] to engage in normative argument as a regular part of social interaction and to interpret social action in the language of right and wrong.”

The utility of law for the liberal arts may also be counseled by its place as perhaps the most active setting we know for developing the skills of reading and interpreting—and of rhetoric more broadly. There may be no better vehicle, in fact, for teaching critical analysis. Consider some of the questions that legal inquiry engages as a matter of course: 

  • What constitutes a community?
  • What are the mechanisms for the creation, preservation, and dissolution of such communities?
  • How—and with what force—do moral and ethical demands bear upon us, as we shift our attention from the individual to the communal?
  • What is the effective—rather than purely rhetorical—force of claims of “right”?

As Sarat summarizes it, “Legal study provides a useful and engaging way to sharpen students’ skills as readers, as interpreters of culture, and as citizens schooled in what Aristotle would have regarded as a kind of practical wisdom, a knowledge that extends beyond theoretical understanding to civic and moral action.”

That law could play, as it has in the past, this central role in study of the liberal arts requires no great feat of imagination. Paul Kahn, my professor of constitutional law at Yale but at least as much a professor of philosophy and the humanities, has suggested an analogy to religious studies in the United States. While once directed exclusively to practitioners—to aspiring clergy of one faith or another—the study of religion has come to stand at the heart of a liberal education. As went the church, so perhaps should go the law.

To that end, Emory Law School today stands at the forefront of efforts to address the need for legal study among a broad universe of professionals, students, and scholars. With its new one-year Juris Master degree—and in partnership with Emory College, the Goizueta Business School, the Medical School, and Georgia Tech—the law school is working to re-establish law as something not just for lawyers.

Turning the tables

What, then, do the liberal arts bring to the study of law?

Most fundamentally, the foregrounding of questions of justice and social welfare can be credited to the study of law within the liberal tradition. Though staples of legal rhetoric, the substantive demands of justice and welfare might more commonly be avoided but for the place of law as a liberal art.

Notions of law as worthy not merely of practice, but of challenge, might also be credited to its study amidst the liberal arts. The very best lawyers know not only what the law is but likewise what it might be. Let there be no confusion: Such lawyers do not stand up in small claims court to demand a fundamental rethinking of the social contract. But in shaping their arguments, in pressing their case, in seeking relief, and yes, in arguing for legal change, they must be constantly attuned both to where the law is, and where it should be.

In that effort, the liberal arts offer lawyers a rich set of tools, as evident in the strong interdisciplinary tradition that has taken hold in legal education over the last thirty years. Emory’s own experience is suggestive: Of Emory Law School’s eight most recent entry-level faculty appointments, six arrived with their PhD’s—in economics, philosophy, political science, and social policy. The law school offers joint degrees with the business school, graduate school, school of public health, and school of theology—and is exploring new possibilities with the ethics center, the medical school, and even the college. A range of programs—from conferences and speaker series, to cross-listed courses and the new Juris Master degree—offer yet further opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement. Yet Emory is hardly unique on these counts. Today, no program of legal study would be complete without the opportunity to engage the liberal arts.

Ultimately, the shift of law from technical to integrative—and from trade to profession—can be linked in significant part to its place among the liberal arts. The profession of law requires not merely knowledge of law’s content and skill in its use, but understanding of its place in society, its moral and ethical dimensions, and its rhetorical force. It is the practice of law in this light that is grounded in the place of law in the liberal arts, and the nature of law as a liberal art.

Further Reading

Berman, Harold J. 1956. On the Teaching of Law in the Liberal Arts Curriculum. Foundation Press.

Kahn, Paul W. 1999. The Cultural Study of Law: Reconstructing Legal Scholarship. University of Chicago Press. 

Princeton University’s Program in Law and Public Affairs http://lapa.princeton.edu/.

Sarat, Austin. 2004. “Situating Legal Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.” Austin Sarat, ed. Law in the Liberal Arts. Cornell UP.