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Introducing the Study of Law in Schools

Everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe. No one should be held in slavery for any reason. The buying and selling of human beings should be prevented at all times.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

A law is valuable, not because it is a law, but because there is right in it. ~ Henry Ward Beecher

I was interested in a news report in the online version of the Daily News of 27 March which reported that “The Parliamentary Sub-Committee appointed to formulate a methodology to include ‘Law’ as a subject in the school curriculum has decided to submit its report to the Consultative Committee in two months”.  The report went on to say that the thinking was that law may be taught systematically in schools and not as a composite subject, which further piqued my interest. The systematic introduction of the concept of law to the student makes eminent sense firstly, in preparing the student to be a useful law-abiding citizen and to introduce him or her to future communal discourse in the role of life ahead. Of course, one has to wait for the contents of the report to be released to learn exactly what is intended but the very idea that the thought has crossed the minds of the legislative branch of government is in itself encouraging, particularly as the minister in charge of education in sri Lanka is one of the most erudite and illustrious legal scholars who could guide the school curricula in the right direction.

In a sense, law related subjects such as civics (in elementary and secondary schools) and government (at a more advanced level) have already been included in school curricula. However, these courses are narrowly relegated to a basic understanding of the relationship between the government and the governed.  The primary purpose of learning the relevance of law as an integral element of human life is to grasp a sense of fairness and of individual rights from a global perspective.  Children at an appropriate age should be exposed to the global perspective of humanity which transcend local boundaries of racial, religious, and ethnic boundaries.  In this context, learning in schools should be law-related and should not be focused on making amateur lawyers of children and adolescents.  It should be introduced in a manner  devoid of fear, reprisal or consequential punitive action and  be couched in simple language that is comprehensible to the impressionable mind, inculcating a sense of universality that is calculated to effectively preclude the prejudices wrought by feelings of supremacy prevalent in the adult world of division by cast, religion, wealth, race, or creed and exclusive focus on one’s family, local community, and friends.  The fundamental premise underlying the introduction of law in schools should comport with what Montesquieu said: “  A truly virtuous man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend. If men were perfectly virtuous, they wouldn’t have friends”.  Of course, the latter sentence should be viewed within  the reality that there is no such thing as a perfectly virtuous world.

Someone once said that the law is the queen of humanities.  For a start, the initial understanding of law by a child could be grounded on the value of human rights upon which the learning of the law in adult life in the law school, be it in the law of obligations in private and public law or criminal law are pursued.  A good example for a starter is the  children’s version of the Universal Declaration of human rights, of which some relevant principles are given below which could form the basic of areas of learning: “ All human beings are born free and equal. You are worth the same and have the same rights as anyone else. You are born with the ability to think and to know right from wrong and should act toward others in a spirit of friendliness. Everyone should have all the rights and freedoms in this statement, no matter what race, sex, or color he or she may be. It shouldn’t matter where you were born, what language you speak, what religion you are, what political opinions you have, or whether you’re rich or poor. Everyone should have all of the rights equally.

Everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe. No one should be held in slavery for any reason. The buying and selling of human beings should be prevented at all times. Everyone has the right to be accepted everywhere as a person, according to law. You have the right to be treated equally by the law, and to have the same protection under the law as anyone else. Everyone should have protection from being treated in ways that go against this document, and from having anyone cause others to go against the rights in this document. If your rights under the law are violated, you should have the right to fair and skillful judges who will see that justice is done.

No one shall be punished for anything that was not illegal when it happened. Nor can anyone be given a greater punishment than the one that applied when the crime was committed. No one has the right to butt-in to your privacy, home, or mail, or attack your honesty and self-respect for no good reason. Everyone has the right to have the law protect him or her against all such meddling or attacks. Within any country you have the right to go and live where you want. You have the right to leave any country, including your own, and return to it when you want. Everyone has the right to seek shelter from harassment in another country.

This right does not apply in cases where the person has done something against the law that has nothing to do with politics, or when she or he has done something that is against what the United Nations is all about.

You have the right to believe the things you want to believe, to have ideas about right and wrong, and to believe in any religion you want. This includes the right to change your religion if you want, and to practice it without anybody interfering. You have the right to tell people how you feel about things without being told that you have to keep quiet. You have the right to read the newspaper or listen to the radio without someone trying to stop you, no matter where you live. Finally, you have the right to print your opinions in a newspaper or magazine and send them anywhere without having someone try to stop you. You have the right to gather peacefully with people, and to be with anyone you want. No one can force you to join or belong to any group”.

The above-mentioned principles  are just some examples that could be built-on through essays and reports that children could write, which would enable them to proceed to greater maturity in their academic  journey through secondary school and onwards.  It must also be mentioned that  an essential supplement to considering the introduction of law in a school curriculum is the need to strengthen the teaching of language.  As Lord Denning, Judge and Master of the Rolls said in 1979: “ To succeed in the profession of law, you must seek to cultivate command of language. Words are the lawyer’s tools of trade”. Children are at the foundation stage of language building.

Finally, it is assumed that the members of the Parliamentary Sub-Committee preparing the Report would have considered the teleological aspects of introducing the teaching of law in schools.  In other words, what would the benefit be of such an initiative?  One benefit could be awareness of fairness that the basic tenets of universal law  inculcated in children that would dispel and effectively preclude any social prejudices handed down by the conventional “wisdom” of a traditionally purblind social structure.  One could also justifiably expect that an introduction to justice and the right thing to do would lead incipient minds to be more easily accustomed to eschewing petty differences of caste, creed, and race as well as other prejudices of social inequality. A stronger sense of community could be established, and more recognition could be given to the dignity and equality of the value of labour.   In his book Utopia for Realists Rutger Bregman says that children are infused with  a huge dose of narcissism by parents of the present day and that in 1950 a survey taken revealed that only 10% of children thought they were “special” and “entitled” and that this figure was 80% in 2000.  At least this could be avoided. 

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