What is PLE?: stepping into the definition quagmire

May 23, 2007

“Efforts to define PLE with any precision have largely failed.” Statements like that one (from Lois Gander) are the most significant results of the thirty odd year quest for a definition of the term “public legal education” in Canada.

That Gander quote is from 2003. Fifteen years earlier, the Canadian Law Information Council (CLIC) said the same thing: “Attempts to define PLE have not been entirely satisfactory.” Going back even earlier still, folks were just as frustrated: “Even the people in the field have failed to reach agreement on many of the terms used to describe the field as a whole.” And this is not just a Canadian phenomenon—in a recent “scoping report” on PLE from the UK, the authors noted: “The need for a definition of PLE has been stressed. There is demand for clarity regarding what it might comprise.”

These statements belie, however, that on an everyday basis, people are having no trouble understanding roughly what PLE is. Isn’t it, quite straightforwardly, just “education” about “legal” topics for the “public”?

The problem, though, as Gander and others have pointed out, is that nobody can agree just what “education” should include, just what counts as a “legal” topic and what doesn’t, or just who the “public” is exactly. And even if you get beyond the individual words, the whole phrase—“public legal education”—can be found referring to any of a cluster of things:

  • the materials, like booklets, DVDs, and websites, that are created to educate the public about law (as in “I’m going down to the rack at the library to pick up some of that public legal education”)
  • any activities, from a conversation with a bartender to a episode of Law and Order to a class on wills and estates, that informs people about law and the legal system (as in “the public legal education going on among friends over coffee might be the most common”)
  • all the people and organizations who are doing the activities and producing the materials that educate people about the law (as in “Canadian public legal education is a mostly female world”)
  • the concept that it is important to build a public that understands law and the legal system (as in “public legal education is either related to access to justice or a part of it”)

Definitions of PLE have run into trouble because both (1) of taking controversially broad or limited views of “public,” “legal,” or “education,” and (2) of leaning too much to either the “concept” sense of PLE or the “materials, activities, and people” sense of PLE.

But in the end, PLE doesn’t have it much worse off than any other field. After all, what is “medicine”? Or “marketing”? Or, how about this description of the problems that the field of adult education has had defining itself:

Those trying to describe adult education as a field of education activity often have been frustrated. Lyman Bryson said, “[Adult education] has always been carried on by a wide variety of agencies, for a variety of purposes, and with many different kinds of people. For this reason, some critics have called it formeless and without direction.”

More than fifty years after Bryson wrote those words, adult education continues to be called, at least by some critics, formless and without direction.

Still, PLE, unlike medicine, marketing, and even adult education, has not yet secured a long-term place in the minds of the public, the policies of the government, and the budgets of its funders. Rallying around a single definition could be an important step in securing that place. Does PLE, the field, need to cut out its linguistic bickering so that it can agree on a common definition of itself? Or, perhaps, is it that the term itself is bad?

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