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Teaching Political Science to Law Students

  • May 19, 2021

Teaching Political Science to Law Students
- Dr. William Nunes, Associate Professor of Political Science, GNLU Gandhinagar

The importance of Political Science to the study of law has to be seen from both philosophical as well as practical angles. Law and politics are interdependent disciplines and one cannot understand the law without having an exposure to the fundamentals of Political Science, which includes political theory, public policy and international relations. Therefore, while teaching Political Science to law students it becomes very imperative to demonstrate the intersectionality of Political Science and Law to generate interest among students who, very often, after joining law school have the impression that social science and allied subjects are not relevant for those who wish to pursue a career in law. This dichotomy of relevance/irrelevance has prevented academics as well as students from being educated in the social sciences, education which would arguably make all stakeholders within the legal academy better lawyers and critical thinkers. Such impressions also stem from the fact that the academy has treated and continues to treat the two disciplines as isolated subjects, with little intellectual interaction between the two, and there has been little attempt to bring out the interdisciplinary dimensions of law. Resultantly, the dichotomy has impoverished both disciplines  which find expression in differing theoretical and conceptual tradition as well as way in explaining legal and political phenomena. While the nature of legal scholarship has progressed towards a more inter-disciplinary approach, the study of law in law schools still remains disconnected from this movement, although the objective for the establishment of National Law University was to bring a paradigm shift in the Indian legal education by evolving curriculum that would be comprehensive and interdisciplinary in nature.

Thus, the task of faculties engaging social science and allied subjects becomes very challenging. It becomes important for the faculty to enable students to understand how the political process and the institutional structure of the government are intertwined to law and why the law-politics/social science interface needs to be explored. Most of the students admitted to law school come from diverse backgrounds. Students who have not studied social sciences find the concepts to be unfamiliar and seeing no connection of the course to their future career they further get disinterested or tend to be alienated. Also in the initial years students who bring liberal thinking to legal thinking struggle to maintain intellectual autonomy as legal reasoning in most time are ordered to defend the status-quo. Furthermore, information transmitted by senior batch revolves the importance of certain subject which would guarantee employability while also how one should fit into the niches of the existing system of practice.

Students who have previously studied politics, or some history courses, tend to find the subject fairly straightforward but for many others these concepts are unfamiliar. For a student new to the subject a concept as slippery and uncertain as, say, the rule of law can be both daunting and disorientating. It is not just complexity that can alienate the student. Many of our undergraduate students struggle to see the point of public law, see little or no connection between the syllabus and their future career aspirations, and furthermore are profoundly disinterested.

The introductory course thus provides an overview of the discipline through the examination of the basic concepts, ideologies, structures and processes central to the study of politics and government. Thus, while familiarising the students with the basic vocabulary of the discipline, the course introduces the students to some of the critical debates while covering some of the more important philosophical questions underlying the epistemological, ontological, and methodological approaches in the discipline. It further, attempts to relate these to current research and debates in the discipline as well as to legal questions surrounding it, for e.g., the emergence of the modern state, concept of sovereignty, the relationship between the state and the citizen, as well as the theory and praxis of the moot themes of liberty, equality, justice, rights, democracy, etc. 

The other course I engage is Political Theory, a field of study which engages the history of political thought and attempts to answer the normative question, “What do we want our political world to be?”. It attempts to explore the cores issues of political and legal theories and the relationship between them. By studying the works of theorists both past and present, the attempt is to delve into fundamental questions of legal and political philosophy. In fact. the knowledge and the tools that Political Science offers to answer questions allows for a better understanding of how the legal system works.

Given the course in Political Science, it becomes important for the faculty to challenge the students’ preconceptions while demonstrating why the social sciences are important for the pursuit of law. Furthermore, in academia, the differing views of the faculty especially those challenging the conservative are immediately identified with left-leaning ideologies and politics, which needs to be carefully negotiated. Taking a clue from Prof. Upendra Baxi scintillating essay, Teaching as Provocation, I believe that teachers must ‘hedonist’ who maintains a community of learners rather than ‘rationalist’. While the rationalist  demands ‘disciplinary loyalties’ and stresses the ‘objective it also tends to maintain a respectable and safe distance between knowledge and politics of action, the hedonist  creates a democratic classroom where teacher students are equal. The hedonist ‘iterates the joy of reaching out other minds through interpersonal communication and dialogue.

The division needs to be broken and legal scholarship should find answer within the broader moral question asked by philosopher. Political science and political philosophy enables students to  engage with questions of what governance factors lead to the Law being framed the way it is besides allowing them  to think about how the Law should be interpreted. Since Law is open-textured, any interpretation of it's text will carry a political viewpoint and the course in political philosophy basically helps them  reveal that political viewpoint and  assumption. Students need to be oriented toward the complementary nature of the two disciplines and this will enable them to be educated in other areas and make them good lawyers.

Another way to generate interest in the discipline is to bring contemporary issues into the classroom. Reference to newspaper articles, TV debates, even songs and movies enable students to relate it to both law and politics and facilitate discussion on the political process and institutions while considering the need for political change and transformation. As a teacher of Political Science, I ensure to offer students a space for thinking to enable them to understand and explain current political issues while utilizing the tools and theories of Political Science. The course aims at enabling students to develop reasoning and interpretative skill and evaluate a number of positions while developing the capacity to appreciate the merits of alternative perspectives – ideological, ethnic, national, gender, etc.

The other major difficulties many teachers face are that we are teaching a generation of millennials who are have grown up with technology and have access to online content which are widely available. Thus in an era of digitalisation, with the pandemic having further amplified  dependence teachers are required to upgrade and update themselves. At times students find themselves working in an environment that is stuck to the past. It is therefore time for teachers to adopt and adapt themselves to the more modern technology-driven approach of teaching and learning. The challenge is to innovate and adapt to the changes not only of technology but also in the manner in which we engage students in the classroom. Law is rooted in socio-economic and political network and while these social factors influence the direction of law; law is also an agent of social change. The intersection of law and the social science is more pressing in contemporary times as it has yet to find answers to several normative questions to depict and expose the current state of affairs and should avoid finding themselves at, what Gabriel Almond stated, ‘separate tables’ having separate conversations while missing out the productive cross-fertilisation that takes place across the discipline as a whole.

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