Can Respect and Inclusion be Taught in Law Schools?: Recommendations to Counter Discrimination Through Educational Institutions
By Gulika Reddy, LLM ’16 Human Rights Fellow and Founder of ‘Schools of Equality,’ an NGO based in India that aims to shift social attitudes that perpetuate gender-based violence and other forms of identity-based discrimination.
New York, May 2, 2016—While the prevalence of varied forms of identity-based discrimination all over the world is deplorable, it is particularly disheartening to witness and experience it within legal institutions that should protect people from such discrimination. In December last year, A U.S. Supreme Court Justice remarked that black students are likely to fare better in “slower-track schools” because many are “pushed ahead too fast.” And in India, a country struggling to address cases of violence against women, a Madras High Court Judge urged a rape victim to marry her rapist as a form of compromise, a result that codified gender-based discrimination.
Law should serve justice and prevent discrimination. But the attitudes of those who form part of legal institutions can be a significant part of the problem. Traditional legal tools on their own are not sufficient to address discrimination; they need to be combined with other targeted interventions that address identity-based discrimination at the interface between law and society. Too often, the messages that those who enter legal fields grow up with contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes and marginalise certain social groups. Interventions must therefore aim to intentionally counter years of socialisation that takes place through various social institutions including the family, educational institutions, the media, and popular culture.
Interventions to counter discrimination must specifically happen in educational institutions including law schools, when students are still in the process of developing the values and practices that they will carry forward both in their personal and professional lives. These institutions should ensure that they mainstream discussions about identity that aim to counter discrimination, and incentivize and celebrate embodying values of inclusiveness.
In 2014, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance highlighted the fundamental role of education in combating such discrimination. Earlier this year, while discussing living with diversity as one of the major challenges of the 21st century, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also spoke of the education system as an opportunity to tackle this challenge. He explained that it is in schools that nurture shared values and inclusiveness where children experience and celebrate diversity, and it is within the public school system where “the range of experiences become the mainstream in Canada.”
India has attempted to foster such inclusion by mandating that private schools reserve 25 per cent of seats for children belonging to ‘disadvantaged groups’ and ‘weaker sections’ in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act of 2009. While students significantly benefit from such inclusion, it is important to do more than reserve spots in private schools. Educators must be conscious of the challenges faced by disadvantaged students, and ensure that every individual feels nurtured and empowered to participate, and has the opportunity to add value and create impact in a diverse setting. While the intent of the provision in the RTE Act is laudable, there have been issues with integration in practice, especially amongst students from differing caste and class backgrounds. Legitimate concerns about how to deal with integration have resulted in varied solutions, including having classes with students in shifts depending on which demographic they belong to, which amounts essentially to another form of segregation. Bringing all students together in the same setting is not enough; deliberate engagement and literacy surrounding issues of identity needs to be formally embedded within the education system.
Schools of Equality, a non-profit in India which I founded and direct, works both in public schools and in private schools where this new legislation applies and runs activity-based programmes that attempt to sensitise children to inequalities entrenched in society, such as gender bias; class, caste and racial discrimination; and religious intolerance, through discussions, film screenings, and art and theatre-based activities. These interventions encourage students to introspect and to examine their own attitudes and unconscious biases, question notions of power and privilege related to their identity, and foster diversity and inclusion by respecting each other’s beliefs and rights. This is but one of several examples of teaching human rights values and tolerance in other parts of the world. The rights-based approach to teaching in a school in a poor neighbourhood in Hampshire, U.K., demonstrated that teaching human rights led to increased tolerance and a marked difference in behaviour and attitudes. Similarly, the use of a racial literacy framework for teaching English in a community college classroom in the U.S. resulted in transformation amongst the students by developing their racial literacy skills and examining their own understanding of related issues in critical but constructive ways.
Each of these programs reached students regardless of their identity and politics. Rather than appealing to a self-selecting group of students who had previously confronted these issues, they brought together students who might not normally reflect on these topics. Through dialogue amongst diverse populations, these programs have fostered a deepened understanding of the stereotypes and challenges faced by different identity groups and supported an increase in the level of mutual respect and empathy within and beyond the classroom.
Such sensitization becomes even more critical within law schools that are intended to educate the next generation of leaders in the law, who go on to fill influential positions in legal institutions. U.S. universities often pride themselves on being diverse. However, recent news reports and experiences shared by students raise serious questions about how safe, heard, and nurtured students feel, and whether universities are doing enough to counter discrimination. Faculty belonging to minority groups have also faced discrimination. In November last year, a still-unidentified person or persons pasted strips of black tape on framed photographs of African-American professors at Harvard Law School’s grand Wasserstein Hall.
In response to student activism, a number of schools are working toward promoting diversity amongst faculty and hiring staff members to specifically focus on issues related to diversity. However, similar to the private school system in India, we need to move far beyond just selection and diversity on paper, and focus on diversity literacy and sensitization—for students, faculty and staff. In the absence of deliberate steps in this direction, schools run the risk of falling into the trap of tokenism, which contributes to perceived inferiority and associated feelings of marginalization. Diversity should be celebrated as a means of invaluable cross-cultural learning, and advancing equality of opportunity in education, rather than a system that merely fills quotas. In addition to learning about and engaging with these issues, it is important to create spaces where students feel empowered to participate in the process of the change by organizing events, starting campaigns and taking action to build communities of respect.
Towards this end, steps for law schools to create not just a more diverse but also a more inclusive, nurturing learning environment include:
First, create space and time for increased, intentional dialogue between diverse groups that include students, faculty, and administrators and that aim to re-examine existing values of the institution, and grapple with how to meaningfully embrace values of inclusiveness – which as a value is not only just, but also beneficial for learning and growth.
Second, conclusions from these conversations should be legitimized through institutional and policy shifts that promote accountability. Amongst other steps, this could include revisiting the syllabus or teaching methods to ensure that professors, including those who teach black letter law classes, engage with the subject matter in a way that is critical, and models inclusive behaviour.
Third, ensure that any policy put in place recognises that no identity group is homogenous; policies should provide individualised support and mentorship to students belonging to any identity group.
And fourth, create a joint student and faculty taskforce that monitors and evaluates the implementation of these policies, identifies the biggest barriers to change within the law school, and then identifies or creates opportunities to shift those barriers on an on going basis.
The following articles and videos serve as other examples of action taken or that could be taken in schools and universities:
Articles and Reports
Timeline of student activism for diversity and inclusion in Harvard Law School
Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement in Higher Education, by Susan Sturm, Tim Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush
Full Participation in the Yale Law Journal, by Susan Sturm and Kinda Makovi
Report of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy at Princeton
Human Rights Education: Ideology, Location, and Approaches, by Monisha Bajaj
Rethinking human rights education, by Kayum Ahmed
A path to dignity: A documentary highlighting the value of Human Rights Education through case studies in India, Australia and Turkey
TEDx talk: Educating for Peace & Human Rights: Monisha Bajaj