View from the Classroom: Getting out of th 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.

Traditional classroom learning can only go so far.  It’s necessarily removed from experience; it’s therefore often abstract and alienated from its subject; and it’s sanitized of all the messiness that makes law and practice so interesting.  Traditional classroom learning is too often a purely (and merely) theoretical exercise that fails to connect to the outside world.

This is a significant lost opportunity.  Getting out of the traditional classroom and connecting theory to practice not only concretizes and contextualizes material for our students; it also allows them to mine material at a far deeper level.  In short, our students learn better and deeper when we get out of our traditional classrooms and into the world.

My students are seeing this right now as we visit South Africa as part of our Comparative Constitutional Law and Human Rights seminar.  For example, they better comprehend the structure of the South African government when visiting Parliament and the courts.  They understand human rights practice when they visit the South African Human Rights Commission and non-governmental organizations that instigate, litigate, and advocate for human rights.  They see the relevance of independent government departments when we meet with those departments, and they understand the role of ministries when we visit them.  Finally, they gain new insights into leading Constitutional Court cases when they meet a Court justice and talk about them.

All this seems intuitive.  And it seems particularly unsurprising in a seminar—in Chicago, but about South Africa—that is necessarily so disconnected from its subject.  It seems obvious that visiting, seeing, meetings, and talking with South Africans is critical to a deeper understanding of the South African Constitution.

But this may be surprising: Students learn more about our own Constitution by visiting South Africa and studying its Constitution.  They understand Congress and state legislatures better by visiting Parliament.  They see U.S. civil rights litigation in a new light when they discuss South African human rights litigation with advocates and non-governmental organizations.  They understand the structure of government and rights in the U.S. at a deeper level when they compare and contrast with those in South Africa.

This may be surprising, too: we don’t need to go all the way to South Africa to concretize and contextualize otherwise abstract material.  Students get the same benefits from even local field experience—visits to the local courts, discussions with local judges and policy-makers, and meetings with local advocates and advocacy organizations.  Students gain benefits from these local field experiences even though they’re already familiar with these local people and local institutions.

Traditional classroom learning certainly has its benefits.  But it is sorely lacking in one critical area: exposing students to the outside world.  Exposure deepens and enhances education; it concretizes classroom learning and contextualizes it.  Whether here in Chicago, in South Africa, or any other place, we should do more to get our students out in the world.

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