Discuss Legal Education and the Rule of Law on the Role of Law Educator

Legal Education and the Rule of Law on the Role of Law Educator

Michael Spence St Catherine’s College, Oxford University

Faculty of Law, Oxford University

Faculty of Law, Oxford University

Oxford University was about fifteen years old when Marco Polo arrived at Shangtu. The history of the University spans the history of the European fascination with China and the University shares that fascination. In areas as diverse as economics, art, politics, archeology, medicine, language and literature it is committed to the study of China and Chinese Culture. It is a privilege, therefore, to bring the greetings of the Faculty of Law of the University of Oxford to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the China University of Political Science and Law. It is a tribute to the achievement of those 50 years that so many have come from around the world to this forum on legal education and the rule of law.

I have been asked to address role of the legal educator. I believe that this is a very timely topic. I believe that there are three core tasks of the legal educator, that the importance of those tasks is increasingly being challenged, and that the time could not be more ripe to reassert them.

First, the role of the legal educator must be to empower students and to equip them with the skills that they need to teach themselves. The task of a legal educator is not to teach a student the law. It is not even to teach a student ideas about the law. It is to teach a student to teach herself the law and to guide her to ask the most pertinent and pressing questions about it.

At Oxford, we are committed to a tutorial system of teaching for this type of skills training. Our system is one of guided self-instruction. Each week the student is given a reading list and a question on which to write a piece of written work. She must spend her week in the library teaching herself the relevant area of the law and writing a response to the question set. At the end of the week, she meets with her tutor and with one other student. Together they go through her written work and challenge her to consider issues that she has missed or that she has only poorly understood. The tutor suggests new areas for her reading in the week’s work, areas that she is expected to take up on her own time, particularly during the University vacations. The tutor merely offers help and direction in the student’s own journey through the material.

In one sense our system of tutorial teaching is very inefficient. A student is able to teach herself far less about the law than a student who is presented information and ideas by a teacher. We are increasingly using lecture-based teaching to overcome some of these inefficiencies. But the tutorial remains at the heart of our students’ education. This means that our curriculum must focus on the core areas of public and private law and on the taxonomy of the legal system as a whole: our students only learn the shape of the legal map and explore its major territories. But we are committed to our system because we believe that, as a process of guided self-instruction, it develops independence of mind and an ability in the student to think for herself. We believe that these are far more important gifts than a detailed knowledge of a larger number of subjects.

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