Of teaching law in Tunisia

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By Nidhal Mekki

One popular idea among students in Tunisian law schools is that the study of law is based primarily on memorization and learning by heart for those who are able to do so.

A second idea is that whoever decides to enter the battleground of law practice should be aware that the theoretical knowledge he or she had already received will not be of great help in his or her job, because practicing law is “something completely different” from studying it.

These two ideas, notwithstanding the large exaggeration they represent, refer clearly to two negative phenomena that afflict the teaching of law in Tunisia, namely the excessive theoretical nature and the predominance of the method of lecturing over the method of critical thinking.

Even though the negative impacts of the theoretical nature have been reduced in the Judiciary and law practice professions with the creation of the Higher Institute of the Magistrature (Judiciary) and the Higher Institute of Lawyers, yet they are still being felt in many cases; and perhaps this is due to the fact that this additional training, which includes an important practical (Arabic says theoretical) side comes after the personality of the law student has been formed and the theoretical approach has become an unchangeable character.

The law student’s personality is crafted in his or her first years of studies, and there is no doubt that what distinguishes the first years of law studies in our universities is the predominance of lecturing and purely theoretical approaches.

The way lessons are conducted in the first phase is often based on the professor giving lectures and sometimes even simply dictating in a dull, monotonous atmosphere that does not give the impression that we are on the university bench as there is no room for students to participate in the lesson by asking questions or debating on an issue. The prevailing impression among most students is that attending such a lesson is useless as they can get the course material either printed or even copied.

Students are not to blame for this belief, in fact the professor in the first place should be aware that the lesson is not only an opportunity to provide students with information they can find in any reference (and in a more detailed way) but also and mainly a chance to teach students how to think creatively and critically. Thus, what is important is not the information, but the way to obtain, process and evaluate it and then how to surpass it through critique and the generation of a new idea.

The lecturing method does not at all induce students to read and go beyond the information provided in the lectures by learning about and comparing the work of other scholars or by reflecting on all of that and considering the lesson as a starting point to understand the subject and its relationship with other law areas and the extent to which it can be affected by or impact social phenomena.

There is no doubt, then, that the lecturing method does not encourage students to have a personal position vis-a-vis the information they get and this is getting more dangerous if we add to it another phenomenon, the extent of which is hard to define although there is no doubt it exists. This phenomenon is that some professors prefer and even encourage students in their tests to regurgitate the lesson, all the lesson, and nothing but the lesson, thereby eliminating the freedom of the student, eradicating his or her personality, and enrooting in his or her mind the idea that knowledge is in the notebook and not in the “head” !!

Many professors respond to this accusation by stating that they are compelled to do so, given the fact that the great majority of students are unable to recite what they had learned in the lectures, not to mention their ability to be diligent or to think critically. Thus, we need to ask ourselves what is the reason behind this incapacity.

This incapacity, which has become a great scourge among law students, is due to the weakness of their intellectual performance and their abilities to synthesize and think critically; and these are the results of the teaching methods and not their causes. Teachers, whether at the university or school, are supposed to make a difference in the pupil and the student across the curriculum and teaching methods and not alter the major curricula[1] and programs, depending on the level of the student or his or her preparation! Because this is likely to cause a decline of the education level, thereby creating generations of students with a lower level than that of their predecessors and so forth until we become locked in a vicious circle leading to a complete collapse of the university.

The theoretical approach, in turn, contributes to not only deepening the atmosphere of routine, boredom and depression at Law universities of, but especially to completely isolating them from their surroundings and the professional environment in which students will find themselves in the years to come. Thus, we find in law lessons (whether public or private) a trace of doctrinal debates that are over a century old, while current societal issues, whether framed by the Law or not, are absent. Suffice it to wonder how many students penetrated a courtroom or its Hall (of course as visitors and not as parties to a case) in the framework of a visit coordinated between the university and the Court? Or how many were initiated to the way of working in other legal professions or spent a work placement in an institution and received what should be of monitoring and supervision[2]?

Initiatives of this kind will not only constitute a pedagogical tool to understand the theoretical intake and enrich it, but also a gateway to professional life, in addition to allowing young students to observe how Law lives with us on a daily basis and how close it is to all aspects of life; and this is the best way to teach them the passion for law.

Also, the gap between the University and the legal community that practices law is widening on a daily basis due to the scarcity of communication between judges, lawyers and academia. This communication is important for the vitality of the law, whether at the level of the curriculum or the development of the legal rule in order to respond to the evolution of society.

This communication is possible through various forms such as strengthening the presence of judges and lawyers in universities through lectures, tutorials, joint publications or legal workshops animated by both sides and that allow students to prepare themselves to enter the world of legal practice.

What I have provided so far does not claim to be recommendations in a particular direction as much as it is thoughts and ideas reoccurring to many who have studied or taught law in Tunisia. And because of space constraints, these ideas are unable to tackle all aspects of the underlying problem, but can be seen as the beginning of an extended collective thinking about the overall issues of teaching law at the Tunisian university, especially in light of the rise of many voices recently calling for a reform of the educational system as a whole and the research system in particular. And the reform of the legal education curricula is only a first building block

[1] We are not talking here about pedagogical ways and means of delivery of information, which may vary depending on the understanding and comprehension capabilities and these ways and means may vary even within the same approach to teaching itself.

[2] Despite the importance of the issue of work placements in the teaching of law and in preparing for practicing it, it does not receive adequate attention from all the study and research system’s stakeholders. Students (whether graduated or still studying) face two major problems. The first is the difficulty of obtaining a work placement (In many cases, students are left without any support from the university in the tortuous journey to win an internship in a given institution) and the second is the transformation of the internship, if found, to an opportunity to exploit students in a variety of ways. Here we must think of a charter or a code of conduct governing Internships that should first “institutionalize” them so that they become a self-existing part of the student’s training. The university plays an essential role in facilitating getting work placement opportunities for its students as well as clearly showing the duties of each party and their rights.

 

*Our sincere thanks to Sana El Mekki who translated this article from Arabic.