View from the Classroom: The real world in the classroom

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

One of the most exciting things about teaching is the chance to bring the real world into the classroom.  It’s fun; it engages students; and most importantly it improves learning—by giving students a context and a practical example of the often abstract principles they learn in the otherwise sanitized classroom.

This may be especially true at law school, where every subject necessarily has a real-world application, and where most students strive to practice in that real world.  And among the classes at law school, it may be especially true of my own class, Constitutional Law, where issues seem to appear daily in the news.

These contemporary issues are real treasures for my class.  We get to study how judges, litigants and politicians argue about the Constitution today, right alongside our studies of how judges, litigants and politicians argued about the Constitution over the history of our great nation.  Nothing can engage my students more than seeing how current issues relate to our class.

Take our current topic, the Commerce Clause.  This is all over the news, as Judge Vinson from the Northern District of Florida this week ruled that the individual health insurance mandate in the federal Affordable Care Act exceeded congressional authority.  The ruling coincides with our study of the Clause’s history; it thus allows us to concretize often dry and abstract principles and set them in contemporary practice.  The ruling naturally engages my students in a way that, say, a dispute about congressional authority to charter a steamboat on an interstate waterway (an issue in the seminal Commerce Clause case Gibbons v. Ogden) simply can’t.  And when my students are engaged, they learn.

But there’s also a downside.  Take again the Commerce Clause.  Judge Vinson’s ruling is one of two federal district court rulings striking down the individual mandate.  Two other federal district court rulings upheld it.  Constitutional scholars, policy-makers, and the public strongly disagree on the mandate’s constitutionality.  And both sides seem all too free with their ad hominem attacks on their opponents.  In this environment, we risk learning only that constitutional law is pure subjectivity, or worse: pure politics.  This is no way to engage, much less inspire, our students.

This risk doesn’t mean that we should purge the real world from the classroom, though, even when the real world is highly charged.  But it does mean that our study of it must take care—care to critically evaluate, but not to adopt, sharp rhetoric; care to separate the wheat from the chaff in the public discourse; care to respect opposing viewpoints; and care to bring it all back to sound legal principles.

The real world gives us both great opportunities and great risks in the classroom.  A careful teacher can capitalize on the opportunities and minimize the risks.

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