View from the Classroom: Getting out and into the community

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 and he can be reached at or (312) 386-2865.

Legal education these days is too often divorced from reality.  I don’t mean the reality of legal practice.  (I wrote about that in my last post.)  Instead, I mean the reality of people’s lives, the very people that are perhaps most affected by our system of laws.  We’d do well to change that—to get our students and ourselves out into the community and to see how the law affects people.

My students had a chance to get into a very distant community recently during our trip to South Africa as part of our Comparative Constitutional Law and Human Rights course.  We travelled to a slum area in Soweto, the South West Township outside Johannesburg, to visit a day-care center, meet the children and the administrators, and deliver a donation that we raised in the weeks before our trip.  The center was in a corrugated metal shack, with a make-shift roof held down by bricks and tires, dirt floors and little more indoor space than my office for nearly two dozen children.  Worse: it sat in vast community of like structures that served as homes for these children and that sprawled for miles.

We visited the center after studying social and economic rights, including the right to housing, in the South African and U.S. constitutions.  Our own Constitution, of course, has no such right in its text, and the Supreme Court has declined to read the right into the text.  But the South African Constitution does.  That instrument promises the right of access to housing, and the “progressive realization” of that right, subject to limited government resources.  It also promises dignity and equality, and it’s informed by a communitarian-type responsibility to one another that the South Africans call “Ubuntu.”

Our visit was thus a lesson in applied constitutionalism.  On the one hand, we saw that for all the promises in the South African Constitution, vast numbers of South Africans still lived in abject poverty.  But on the other hand, we also saw that the government was trying—that it took its constitutional commitments seriously, and that it was working home-by-home to bring new and adequate housing to this community, within the constraints of its limited resources.  By engaging the constitutional issues at this deeply personal level, we gained a much richer understanding of the abstract constitutionalism that we studied in the classroom.  We also humanized the law: we learned that constitutionalism and human rights are only doctrines; what really matters are the people they impact.

We didn’t have to go to South Africa to connect with a community.  (This just happened to be the community that was relevant for this class.)  We can get out in the community right here at home.  And in doing it, we can similarly gain a richer understanding of the abstract law we teach and learn in the classroom.  More importantly: we can humanize the law.


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