Review: The Hidden Curriculum of Legal Education: Toward a Holistic Model for Reform

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By Jeremiah Ho from University of Massachusetts School of Law-Dartmouth

In sharing his insights into curriculum reform in legal education, David Moss recommends that law faculties committed to igniting such reforms at their law schools should change curriculums holistically and not resort to piece-meal, bandage repair. Specifically, they should do so by paying particular attention to the “hidden curriculum” within their programs of legal education. Moss encases the transformation of law school curriculums as part of the bigger discourse of what happens when the curriculum of any educational institution undergoes reform. Invoking educational theorists and philosophers outside the legal academy—from John Dewey to William Pinar—as his sounding boards, instead of cutting off the connection between education and legal education (as many have done), Moss emphasizes common and important thematic elements across all fields of instruction. In the law school setting, his “forest for the trees” approach addresses both the criticism that traditional law school teaching should better match the on-the-job expectations of our new graduates and the question of what it really means to teach our students to “think like lawyers.”

What is the hidden curriculum of law schools? According to Moss, it is the subtext that our curriculums convey underneath the accumulation of offered courses for our students, and Moss picks out common hidden messages that many law school curricula reveal. For instance, a law school curriculum’s emphasis on doctrinal courses over experiential courses might reveal that this school systemically values certain knowledge and instructional methods over others. In this way, a hidden curriculum tells us that schools do not just teach an aggregate of the courses in its own curriculum, but rather that the entire process of schooling is “a socialization process where students pick up messages through the experience of being in a school and interacting with faculty and peers, not just from things they are formally taught.” The curriculum is then no longer just a foundation of required knowledge, but a vehicle for inducting our students into the legal profession. And what it presents in subtext speaks volumes about a specific school’s entire program of legal education. For a deeper, more meaningful reform, we must look to what the curriculum says between the lines and whether that helps advance the education goals for our students.

Specifically, to deal with the pieces of curriculum transformation, Moss notes that the curriculum must encompass “action and purpose,” stretching it toward a broader sense of conversation that our courses say to us, our students, and the professional community they will serve. If a school considers effective legal reasoning as consistent with practice-readiness and desires practice-readiness for its graduates, then what ways will its curriculum explicitly and implicitly convey this value to its students? This is where Moss compliments his introduction of the hidden curriculum with his use of transdisciplinary reform for planning changes to a curriculum that addresses both the hidden and the unhidden.

First, Moss posits that legal education is “an additive process of learning” so that “law faculty should consider curriculum programmatically—across every year of a program—as they engage in reform.” Once the main purposes and values have been articulated—for instance, imparting legal reasoning, knowledge, practice-readiness, induction into the profession, etc.—the other part of this engagement should be holistic. Moss urges us to look for reform from a transdisciplinary perspective, where we start globally with the whole picture of the learning process before questioning ourselves about what we want our students to achieve upon graduation and finding knowledge within the subjects and courses that could resolve these questions.

By conceptualizing reform in this way, Moss suggests that “we must re-visit the question of practice-ready graduates” and to expect that our graduates should have obtained “a higher and richer perspective on the law and legal practice that draws from doctrinal, ethical, and other aspects of the profession.” As normative as this may sound, Moss’ transciplinary approach seems lucid and prescient in light of this month’s changes by the ABA’s Council on Legal Education. A transdiscplinary reform of a law school’s curriculum could produce a program of legal education that “purposefully and systemically helps law students understand how the various elements of their professional practice fit together.” It would be an approach that “empowers” us to acknowledge what misinformed messages our traditional law curricula inadvertently convey to our students and avoid “merely cobbl[ing] together programmatic elements that disjointedly address these various outcomes.” What this method ultimately renders out of a curriculum is an important and robust interaction with the law student over the course of his or her schooling, rather than just a catalogue of courses to complete. Curriculum, after all, is not just about what subjects we teach, but, of course, who we are teaching.

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