August 8, 2012

Why We Need to Teach More Law in Schools & Less Math. ~ David Schockett

Our schools need to start teaching less math and more law. Simple as that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of math. And I am willing to concede that pretty much every discovery and innovation since the beginning of human civilization was due, if not in part, entirely to the study of Mathematics. I appreciate its purity and symmetry, and understand its universality, consistency and perfection. It has the paradox of being both dynamic and static at the same time, and it’s one of the only things in this world that you can always count on.

You might find out next week that they were wrong (again), and that carbohydrates and trans fats are actually good for you, but you don’t have to worry about waking up tomorrow and discovering that the square root of 100 is no longer 10.

Math is comforting and true and beautiful. Without a deep understanding of it, we would probably be extinct by now. That being said, I would be willing to wager that if you are not a scientist or engineer, that not one in a hundred of you has had to solve for X since graduating from high school. Or determine whether an angle is obtuse or acute. Or handle a polynomial equation. Or calculate sines, cosines and anti-derivatives.

For all intents and purposes, you’ve never had to calculate anything that requires more than a basic understanding of fractions, multiplication or percentages. And you never will. While the vast majority of us at one time or another has had to negotiate a “30% off” rack at an outlet store, a scant few of us have had to calculate a new search algorithm for Google.

When I was in eighth grade, I remember complaining to my dad about the pointlessness of my algebra homework. He posited that these advanced mathematics courses were essentially “mental gymnastics” that allowed schools and colleges to discern between the kids who could do it and the kids who could not. That made sense and I appreciated that there has to be some sort of “weeding out” process in higher education.

Even now I appreciate the importance of math in developing our brains and our thinking process. I am not dismissive of that. But the purpose of a primary education is to provide us the knowledge and intellectual tools to help us practically navigate our life. And I’m not sure the four years I spent studying higher mathematics in high school helped advance that goal in any appreciable way. While the optimal situation would be to teach both, the dismal state of our primary education system naturally lends itself to my favorite trite expression, Good luck with that.

We need to study the law.

Except for some rote and cursory lessons about our Constitution, the attention that my school paid to the study of our legal system seemed negligible compared to the attention given to mathematics. I’m not suggesting that we don’t offer math to our kids, but anything from basic algebra on should be elective for kids who know that these courses will prepare them for their future goals.

We can even give parents the right to choose how much advanced math their kids must study. But given the number of run-ins and interactions we have in our lifetime with our legal system, the disparity between the amount of math and law that we teach our kids is not just irresponsible, it borders on travesty.

Think about all the ways we interact with the law—If you drive a car, there is an almost 100 percent chance you will have an encounter with the law. You will be pulled over for a moving violation or you will operate that car while impaired, or you will hit someone with that car, or that car will be hit by someone else’s car, etc. If you own a business or property, at some point you will need a lawyer. And more than once. If you buy or sell something of great value, you will need some legal advice. If you are married or have children, chances are, at some point, you will need a lawyer. If you are injured or injure someone else, by accident or intentionally, chances are you will need a lawyer. If a neighbor’s tree falls on your car, you will need a lawyer. If your tree falls on your neighbor’s car, you will need a lawyer. If you win the lottery, you will need a lawyer. If someone accuses you of wrongdoing, you will need a lawyer. Even if you are falsely accused, you will need a lawyer. If you are named as one of a hundred defendants in a nuisance lawsuit, you will need a lawyer. If you don’t want a bank trustee taking everything you own after you die, you will need a lawyer. If you have a great idea, you will need a lawyer. You see where I’m going here.

From a young age, our citizens need to be provided a better understanding of our legal system—criminal law, constitutional law, civil law, criminal and civil procedure and basic legalese. I’m not suggesting that an in-depth understanding of Brown vs Board of Education or Marbury vs Madison is essential for the layperson, but if it wasn’t for TV cop shows, the average American wouldn’t know what their Miranda rights were. And that’s sad.

You should know your rights when you are stopped by a police officer, you should understand what constitutes illegal search and seizure, you should be able to file a simple lawsuit or defend yourself from one. You should know how to present evidence to a court and to make an argument on your own behalf. You should know how to file a motion such as an Order to Show Cause or for an ex parte hearing. You should be able to write a simple brief.

Every American citizen should have an in-depth understanding of Habeas Corpus.

And while it may sound daunting, every one of these things is easier than trigonometry.

Law affects every one of our lives in a tangible way and it is ridiculous that we are so ill-equipped to handle even the most basic legal issues. Imagine if you had to go to the hospital every time you needed an aspirin or a Band-aid. That’s basically where we stand when it comes to our legal system. And it’s not an accident.

We all know that terrible feeling of having to go to court. For some ungodly reason it always seems like you have to be there at 7:30 am. You set your alarm for 5:45 but you don’t really need to because you can’t fall asleep and end up looking at the clock every ten minutes calculating how much sleep you can still manage to get if, by some miracle, you fall asleep at that moment.

You crawl out of bed and put on some ill-fitting suit that you haven’t worn since, well, since the last time you had to be in court. And then before that, the time you couldn’t think of a decent excuse to extricate yourself from going to your neighbor’s daughter’s Quinceanera. You drive downtown, park in a lot adjacent to the courthouse and resign yourself to the fact that you are pretty much all-in on the $20 max all-day parking rate.

You have hired an attorney at the rate of $250/hr or higher (a compensation rate that has become so universally accepted that we have lost perspective on how utterly absurd it is) and then cling to this person as if they are part legal counsel, part parent and part therapist. You are so completely dependent on your lawyer that you become an almost helpless child.

I’m sure all of us laypeople know the feeling of being in court, listening to the judge say something audibly, in perfect English, and then leaning over to your attorney and whispering in his ear, “What did she say?” As if she had mumbled in Sanskrit. The legal labyrinth in which you are embroiled is so dense and complicated that you simply resign yourself to this state of barely post-natal intellectualism and regard your occasional brushes with our legal system as an inescapable but necessary evil.

I recently spent about a year in court and got a close-up view of how our civil justice system operates. While it seemed outwardly to have the trappings of a typical adversarial dynamic, under the surface it struck me as if both counsels and the judge were involved in a delicate dance that was both collusive and choreographed. Neither side seemed to express the slightest interest in truncating the proceedings with a settlement offer and an endless series of motioned flew back and forth with a frequency and ferocity (not to mention a price tag) that would make your head spin.

It became pretty clear to me that our entire legal system has been gamed and modified in such a way as to do nothing but extract the most money possible from its litigants.

So when I mentioned before that it wasn’t an accident that the average person is struck deaf, dumb and blind when confronted by a legal matter, it’s because it is by design.

“First, kill all the Lawyers.” This, of course, is the famous paraphrase from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI.” And while the original context is vastly different than most people would suspect (it is actually used to lionize the importance of lawyers in protecting society from chaos and upheaval), it is a line that resonates with practically anyone whose has experienced any type of prolonged exposure to attorneys. Because it is the attorneys themselves who have engineered a system that is virtually impenetrable to the layperson.

The obfuscation of our legal system is by design. They have intentionally made the system so complicated and so opaque and so daunting as to make it impossible for us to handle even our most basic legal needs. And it is an outrage.

I am not suggesting that there is no place in our society for lawyers. But what I am suggesting is that that place shouldn’t be everywhere, at every car accident, at every slip and fall, at every foreclosure, at every divorce and at every neighborhood dispute. We need to start teaching our citizens how our legal system operates and how to operate it themselves. The benefits to our society would be immeasurable and with a more informed and involved citizenry, we’d all be better off.

I mean, it should be obvious…  Just do the math.

David Schockett is an essayist, screenwriter and humorist from Miami, Florida. Born in the 60s, he is neither a Boomer nor a Gen-Xer. He delighted his parents by dropping out of the University of Florida after 3 1/2 years to pursue a career in the film business. He has also been the owner and operator of the Dragonfly Nightclub in Hollywood since 1992. He currently resides in Los Angeles and is the proud parent of an 11 year old daughter named Audrey and a 6 month old Staffordshire Terrier named Fred. He is universally recognized as an expert at “Words With Friends” and has drawn widespread praise for his ability to accurately guess the height and weight of any random person.

Editor: Anne Clendening

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