Ideology, law and teaching

As I am a university lecturer, I was interested to read about the Young Liberals’ campaign to “out” left-wing lecturers. That seems to miss the point to me: it’s a bit unpleasantly reminiscent of a McCarthyist witch hunt.

I have to say that in law school I had a variety of lecturers, from open Marxists to known advisers to the Liberal Party. I had no problem with that. One of my best friends at high school was a neo-Marxist, my other best friend was a Tory. They didn’t like one another much, but I liked them both a lot. I’m still friends with both.

The problem is not that a lecturer has a political leaning. The real problem arises in two situations:

  1. When a lecturer is sarcastic and vicious to those who disagree with his or her point of view.
  2. When a lecturer allows his or her particular view to skew what is taught away from the curriculum.

I once had a lecturer who savaged those who didn’t agree with the particular brand of ideology he followed. As it happened, he was very, very left wing, but that’s not the issue: I don’t care whether he was left wing or right wing. The issue is that he silenced and mocked those who disagreed with him. Certainly it had an effect on my own experience in that class. I said barely a thing during class, and I definitely did not enjoy the subject. A lecturer cannot help portraying things from his or her own viewpoint to an extent, but I think he or she should be open-minded to different ideas and viewpoints.

The other issue occurs when a lecturer allows his or her viewpoint to skew classes away from what is set down in the curriculum. This need not be a political point of view – it could also be a particular research bug-bear which interests the lecturer. Particularly with core law subjects, the object should be to give students the ability to deal with problems in practice. My own attitude is that I must focus on getting the law across and not indulge myself in personal enthusiasms too much. Of course my enthusiasm is part of what makes my teaching engaging to students, but not if I just concentrate on those topics which I like to the detriment of other topics. I actually suspect that my students find my own personal biases amusing and somewhat bizarre. (On the one hand I have a deep hatred of the notion of “fusion fallacy”, for example, and a dislike of the narrow-minded Sydney Equity Bar. On the other hand, I love restitution and resulting trusts. Yum, yum!)  When these things come into issue I always try to fairly present the opposing point of view, and I flag my own personal prejudices, with a rider that it is by no means necessary to agree with me to do well in the course, and indeed I welcome and enjoy good argument to the contrary. Of course, I do highlight ways in which I think current laws are unfair or could be reformed, but again, I say that students are welcome to disagree, and that they won’t be marked down for doing so. I also say that I don’t care what line they take, as long as it is well argued and justified. I suspect that scary lecturer who savaged people who disagreed with him has made me very, very conscious about never doing that to my students.

My friend’s brother told me that one of his university lecturers doesn’t teach to the curriculum at all, but rather speaks about things which interest her. As far as I’m concerned, that is appalling. Teaching is not a personal soapbox – she should make her own soapbox blog if that’s what she wants to do. That’s a private affair. Indeed, one of the reasons why I am anonymous on this blog is because I don’t want my students to know my political views and to feel constrained by them in some way.

So perhaps what is needed is not a McCarthyist witchhunt, but a clear policy that students come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse points of view which should be encouraged by teachers, whatever their own personal leanings. After all, part of the way in which we learn is by taking into account opposing views and criticisms, difficult and painful as that may be sometimes.

(I have to repeat that last sentence to myself lately: I suffered a particularly vicious review of my recent attempt to submit an article to a prestigious journal…waaaah! Well, I guess if you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to learn to play rough – they are mostly boys too, by the way.)


Filed under academia, freedom of speech, law, law reform, legal education, politics, society, tolerance, universities

5 responses to “Ideology, law and teaching

  1. wen

    good post, LE.

    as a student, i agree that it is frustrating when law teachers use lesson to vent their spleen or narrate old war stories (i find this tends to happen with ex-barristers).

    the best teachers i’ve found are those who taught the four corners of the curriculum, facilitated constructive discussion between students and constantly pushed our minds.

  2. Excellent post, which has a wider implication in the culture wars, about left/right dominance in all faculties at universities and schools. The right-wing shouldn’t complain about proportions of lefty lecturers (and vice versa), but whether they give viewpoints a fair go.

  3. Further thoughts:

    I think that it’s inevitable that universities attract more left wing people, just because of the way that they operate. When I think of my more right-wing friends at university, they are in private practice as corporate lawyers, accountants and merchant bankers, with a few working in government too. My more left-wing friends work in community legal centres, government, academia, NGOs, but also as solicitors or barristers in private practice. A few friends have gone totally left of field, dropping law altogether, becoming artists and jewellery designers or alternative health practitioners – just proves you shouldn’t pigeon hole anyone!

    So: certain workplaces tend to attract a certain sort of person with particular goals. Personally, I wasn’t tremendously comfortable in a large corporate law firm, just because it didn’t suit the way I think or operate. But I can see that some people flourish there, and they are people whom I like and respect.

    As law teachers we have to cater to the needs of that whole range of students. I always tell my students that they should give legal practice a go, but there’s many different options which may suit them – they shouldn’t just feel that they have to go down the Big Firm Path because it’s the most “prestigious”.

    I think practising law does change your point of view when teaching. I’m glad I spent a few years trying out various options before I came back to teach. In order to know what’s right for you, sometimes you have to know what doesn’t work as well.

  4. pete m

    At heart is when this bias extends to marking a paper. I had a certain Treasurer as a lecturer in a politics course, and there was no doubt how we were to write about the “dismissal”. It was the most boring class in my law school days bar none.

  5. Pete, good point – that is the heart of it for students, certainly. That’s why I always make it clear that people are not marked on their point of view, but on their argument.

    I really hated it when lecturers implied that if one wanted to do well in a certain subject, one had to follow the lecturer’s point of view. Very, very boring. And particularly bad in a course which is supposed to make you think analytically, and make you consider both sides of the story.

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