Often students don't remember what you teach them. They remember who you are.
LAST Saturday the Faculty of Law at Universiti Teknologi Mara, Shah Alam organised a gala dinner to bring together the faculty’s alumni from 1973 onwards.
It was an occasion perfumed by warm memories stretching back four decades. Anecdotes were recalled and in the midst of obvious pride in all that has been achieved, there were calls to confront boldly the challenges of 21st-century legal education.
The Faculty of Law used the glittering occasion to honour some of its icons who illuminate the judiciary, the legal profession, the academia, the corporate world and the political arena.
As I sat with the distinguished alumni to share in the festivities, I could not but help reflect on legal education in general and my own insignificant role as a law teacher in several universities.
In more than four decades in the classroom it has been my privilege to touch and be touched by the lives of thousands of students. I look back with thanksgiving at the opportunity to assist them to achieve their potential and find their niche in life.
Though the shadows are lengthening on my career, I have not ceased to reflect on the role of a law teacher and my own deficiencies. I often wonder what I could have done to make things better both in substance and in the method of delivery.
Educator: A law teacher disseminates ideals, principles and doctrines that have accumulated over the course of centuries. He stands on the shoulders of all the great thinkers who preceded him.
He promotes activity of thought and receptivity to beauty and humane feeling. He infuses a desire for knowledge. He shares the exhilaration of the adventure of ideas.
He leads students to the shores of knowledge and encourages them to explore beautiful secrets that lie buried and await discovery.
As an educator he tries to make difficult things look simple and simple things look rich.
Mirror as well as candle: Besides being the mirror that reflects the light produced by others, a good educator strives to become the candle that adds to the world’s glow of knowledge. He provides intellectual leadership. Through his writings, research, lectures and seminars he pushes the horizons of knowledge farther.
Moulder of character: A good lecturer moulds character. He motivates, gives courage and faith and builds his students’ confidence in their abilities. He shares the conviction that there is no task beyond our ability. With persistence, ordinary people can achieve extraordinary feats.
It is attitude, not aptitude that determines altitude. Genius is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.
Loco parentis: A lecturer is a surrogate parent and counsellor. He cares for the welfare and the emotional and intellectual health of his wards. Teaching is a partnership between the student and the educator. A good lecturer teaches with his heart as well as his mind. Often students don’t remember what you teach them. They remember what you are.
Self-education: An academician builds processes but leaves outcomes to the process users. He teaches students how to think, not what to think. Though he imparts facts and values, more importantly he invites students to assemble facts into fresher combinations.
Most lecturers these days have moved away from the “chalk and talk” system of pedagogy. We hold tutorials, seminars, moots, debates and panel presentations. We require a supervised dissertation.
Examination papers have moved away from theoretical enquiries towards problems that require knowledge application.
Despite these changes we have generally failed to make classes more interactive and participative. Perhaps on-campus, student and staff-run legal aid clinics, clinical legal education courses, accredited community-service programmes and open-book examinations may encourage more self-education. We need to incorporate new technologies in teaching.
Questioning permitted: A good educator creates an environment in which respectful questioning and criticism is allowed, dialogue is permitted, and introspection and a sharing of doubts and beliefs are encouraged. He encourages constructive criticism and reform. He is aware that the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled (Plutarch).
He accepts that in law there are always conflicting interpretations. More often than not there are no right answers. Within the limits of the law, diversity of views should be permitted. If we disagree with someone, we should not demonise or stereotype this person. Instead we should offer a well-researched, rational, legal challenge to his view of things.
Two-way education: An educator learns from his wards both on what to teach and how to teach. He understands the vastness of knowledge and the fact that no one can have a monopoly over the truth.
He treats his students as fellow travellers on the journey of knowledge. He does not speak from the mountaintop. He dwells in the valleys of knowledge and gently ushers his wards up to the mountaintop.
Promotes holistic view: He promotes a holistic view of knowledge and its inter-connectedness with all other fields of human thought. He invites students to look at the law as it is, and also as it ought to be. He points out not only what the law says but also what it does. He examines not only the law’s content but also its consequences.
He invites students to look not only at rules, but also behind them to their political, moral, social and economic aims, and beyond them to their political, moral, social and economic consequences.
Justice: Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. A law teacher must instil the desire for justice. Law is not just a heathen word for power. It is a primary, though not the sole, instrument for securing liberty, equality and social justice.
Every law person must develop a passion for fairness and justice for all, irrespective of race, religion, region or gender. While knowing his rights he must be conscious of his duties and also the rights of others. He must understand that the first function of freedom is to free someone else.