Skip to main content

Featured Project

Inspiration 101: Law Students Draw Lessons from the Humanities

May 30, 2012 | By Andrew Simon

Open any 20th century U.S. history textbook to unearth a vast social, cultural and political narrative spanning the Eras, from the Progressive and the Prohibition to the Civil Rights and the turbulent Sixties and Seventies. Open any law school textbook to unearth a body of momentous laws that helped set the course of this grand human narrative -- the unending story of our collective endeavor to construct a more just world.

Modern legal education, with its emphasis on specialized and technical learning, can lose sight of the interconnectedness of law and the humanities. In an effort to narrow this gap, the National Endowment for the Humanities hosted four events for law students in the Washington, DC area.

Textbooks have a central place in a legal education. But they do not bring readers closer to content in the same way that films do. Each event featured the screening of a film funded by the NEH and a discussion with law students, legal experts and humanities scholars. The screenings and discussions took place at a venue truly at the crossroads of law and society -- the White House.

Convinced of the value of a legal education that transcends textbooks, Courtney Chapin, NEH’s Director of White House and Congressional Affairs, developed the concept for the series of events -- the “Bridging Cultures through Film” series. She said, “We wanted to breathe life into the past through the wonderful films the NEH has supported, and we hope to inspire law schools across the country to bring these compelling visual resources into their classrooms.”

By giving students the opportunity to engage with legal experts, historians, filmmakers and the people who lived the history, the film screenings and panel discussions turned the White House into a dynamic learning environment. The dialogue that took place bridged divides between viewers and creators, students and experts, and legal scholarship and humanities scholarship.

The lessons that emerged from the series of events were real, powerful and timely. During the panel discussion after the screening of Prohibition, a three-part series on the Prohibition Era directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Judge Andre Davis told the students, “When the Congress or judges get out ahead of the people, really bad things happen to good people. This is an object lesson for us to be wary of attempting to turn our grand document of the Constitution into some kind of code of behavior because I think it’s doomed to failure.” 

Davis added, “Law is inherently a multidisciplinary undertaking. You cannot be a good, effective advocate without a deep appreciation for the historical, cultural, and social contexts in which laws are adopted.” The law students valued the message. One student who attended the Prohibition screening and discussion said, “The film is excellent and the commentary on Constitutional Law infused with the historical perspective was fantastic.”

Each film gave the students a unique perspective on the important interplay between law and the humanities and perhaps reminded the students why they decided to pursue a legal career in the first place. The students, who came from American University, Georgetown University, George Mason University, George Washington University, Howard University, Catholic University and the University of the District of Columbia, provided glowing reviews for all of the events.

“The screening of I Came to Testify,” a film which looks at the violent conflict that erupted among various ethnic groups including Bosnians and Serbs the early 1990s, “was one of the best experiences of my 1L year,” one student said. “Events such as these were a huge factor in my decision to attend law school in DC, and I was very grateful for this opportunity.”

Another NEH-funded film shown at the White House was The Loving Story, a documentary chronicling the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which overturned anti-miscegenation laws. The Loving Story director Nancy Buirski alluded to the significance of using film to bring law to life. “It was especially gratifying to hear from both young law students and seasoned attorneys how meaningful it was to learn about the real people at the heart of a Supreme Court case. Mildred and Richard Loving were no longer names on the Loving v. Virginia case file, but flesh and blood individuals whose noble stance made a difference to our country. Indeed, the audience enriched the panel as much as the other way around.”

Bridging Cultures is an agency-wide initiative, engages the power of the humanities to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives within the United States and abroad.