In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Teaching International Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Teaching International Law through History
  • (Critical) Legal Pedagogy

International Law Teaching International Law
Christine Schwöbel-Patel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0166


The teaching of international law is a topic of interest to most international law educators. The pedagogy employed, the practices favored, and the challenges faced are also of concern to students of international law. And yet, it is notable that there are only relatively few contemporary scholarly contributions dedicated specifically to the teaching of international law. Certainly, much scholarship on international law is implicitly about teaching as it explores an area of contention and considers in which ways these can be made intelligible to a student or professional audience. However, scholarly reflections on how to teach are still relatively uncommon. Contributions on pedagogy and practices largely begin to emerge in the mid-1990s. Indeed, a break is discernable in the publications dedicated to the teaching of international law since the 1990s. This break before and after the 1990s reflects a change in the discipline of international law. Prior to the 1990s, international law was a subject thought mainly to be of interest to the work of foreign ministries. The chief issue that commentators on the teaching of international law have prior to the 1990s is the relative inattention to international law in law school curricula and the lack of application to practice—many of the pieces read like disgruntled accounts of those seeking status and recognition. Since the 1990s, the discipline of international law has expanded its reach (with global universities, a global knowledge economy, and a much-debated juridification of international relations). In conjunction with the expansion of international law has also emerged a more technocratic notion of teaching the discipline. Teaching syllabi generally set out the skills to be acquired and the learning outcomes to be achieved rather than giving attention to the pedagogical orientations which have informed them. However, and somewhat paradoxically, the technocracy in teaching has also opened up an emerging debate on critical pedagogy in international law, which was almost entirely absent prior to 1990. Indeed, a large part of the contemporary literature is critical of the traditional way of teaching international law. This critical flavor to scholarship on teaching international law is sharpened through emerging debates on the decolonizing of the syllabus and concerns regarding the neoliberalization of the university. Recent attention to the biases of international law’s knowledge production may be ringing in a welcome renewed and critical assessment of the teaching of international law. There is a separate literature on teaching sub-disciplines of international law which overlaps but deserves a separate analysis.

General Overviews

Teaching international law scholarship can be divided into pre-1990s and post-1990s. Prior to the 1990s, contributions are largely preoccupied with what (doctrine) to teach rather than how to teach. The international law syllabus is generally assumed to be constituted of state practice and judicial decisions, and there is a distinct effort at neutrality. Lachs 1986 aims to depart from this focus on content by shifting the discussion to teachers and away from teachings, providing an idealized notion of the teacher shaping the minds of students. The vast differences in subject matter on an international law syllabus become apparent in the edited collection Bernhardt 1981, which aims at a comparative analysis of the teaching of international law. Overviews are included from Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, compiled on the basis of questionnaires provided by the German Society of International Law. The edited collection Cheng 1982 is both typical and unusual for its time. It is typical in the contributions provided by international law teachers from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, who describe the international law curriculum in their respective countries. It is atypical in the refreshing epilogue of the editor himself, who describes the prevalent effort at neutrality as “doctrinal pantheism . . . an almost ritualistic recitation of the rival theories” (Cheng 1982, pp. 203–204). The recurring worry of international lawyers concerning status can perhaps be best understood through a reading of the Roundtable on the Teaching of International Law—the published remarks from a 1991 American Society of International Law. At this meeting, a practitioner from a private law firm described the study of international law as irrelevant to its practice, adding that students with an interest in global affairs would be better advised to learn a foreign language. A few years later, John King Gamble, as one of the most prolific contributors to the topic of teaching international law in the 1990s, turns the conversation toward how to teach international law. Teaching techniques can be found in Gamble’s coauthored book Gamble and Joyner 1997 as well as in his coauthor’s article Joyner 1999. Although Koskenniemi 2001 is not strictu sensu about teaching international law, it traces the emergence of international law to when it began to be taught at universities, creating a link between teaching and teachings of international law. The edited collection Klabbers and Sellers 2008 is more contemporary, engaging with international legal education in a globalized world. Klabbers’s contribution describes his increasing discomfort with the professionalization of legal education, echoing recent critiques of the neoliberalization of the university. The ILA Final Report from 2010 provides an overview of discussions on international law in the curriculum, teaching materials, and pedagogical techniques. In a display of existential anxiety, the report (of the now-disbanded Committee) goes on to consider whether the existence of the Committee itself could be “artificially blocking important research” (p. 5). In a widely celebrated recent book, Roberts 2017 employs a comparative law approach to international law focusing on academics and textbooks to examine patterns of difference, dominance, and disruption in the construction of international law. The author’s finding supports what many have suspected, and some have long declared: that international law itself is parochial, elitist, and exclusionary. Perhaps this book will ring in a more reflective and reflexive approach to debates and practices on the teaching of international law.

  • Bernhardt, Rudolf, ed. Das Internationale Recht in der Juristenausbildung. Karlsruhe, Germany: C.F. Müller, 1981.

    This collection in German, with additional contributions in English and French, sets out the state of international legal education in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and the United States. Commissioned by the German Society for International Law, the task was to examine the discrepancy between the increased significance of international law in international relations on the one hand and the waning attention to the subject in education on the other hand.

  • Bettwy, Samuel. “Roundtable on the Teaching of International Law.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law) 85 (1991): 102–123.

    The remarks from this roundtable follow an ASIL survey of the teaching of international law, which show a distinct uniformity in teaching international law at US law schools. A notable contribution is from David Westin, describing international law as a “liberal arts” aspect of a law school. Mary Ellen O’Connell’s unflinching retort is widely cited as demonstrating the value of teaching international law.

  • Cheng, Bin, ed. International Law: Teaching and Practice. London: Stevens and Sons, 1982.

    The edited collection features contributions by teachers of international law in the early 1980s (including well-known names such as Robert Jennings, Rosalyn Higgins, and Georg Schwarzenberger). The book is both concerned with what is taught as well as reflections on how international law is taught. Part 4 is dedicated to “The Teaching of International Law.”

  • Gamble, John, and Christopher Joyner, eds. Teaching International Law: Approaches and Perspectives. ASIL Bulletin No. 11. 1997.

    Described by the American Society of International Law as a “hands-on, users’ manual for teaching international law drawn from classroom experiences,” this short book is authored by two of the most prolific writers and most fervent supporters in matters concerning the teaching of international law. It includes sample syllabi, exam questions, and suggestions for teaching techniques.

  • ILA Final Report. International Law Association, The Hague Conference, Committee on the Teaching of International Law. 2010.

    The final report before the Committee was disbanded provides an overview of the main discussions in the ten-year existence of the Committee. The status of international law teaching, the “internationalist” versus “nationalist” orientation of teaching international law, innovative teaching techniques, and a possible collective “bare-bones” syllabus are discussed.

  • Joyner, Christopher. “Teaching International Law: Views from an International Relations Political Scientist.” ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law 5 (1999): 377–388.

    Addressed to political scientists, this article provides a general overview of tips and tricks for teaching international law. The perspective on international law as a discipline is that it is mainly relevant to government action. A memorable section uses road safety metaphors to explain how governments act, and what kind of government behavior to be cautious of (pp. 382–383).

  • Klabbers, Jan, and Mortimer Sellers, eds. The Internationalization of Law and Legal Education. Ius Gentium Perspectives on Law and Justice 2. New York: Springer, 2008.

    The book is comprised of essays written by members of a multi-university international law faculty (student and teacher) exchange, reflecting on the impact of globalization. In his chapter, Klabbers worries about the result-orientation in teaching and the setting up of curricula which produce professional lawyers rather than global citizens. Grossman considers the case method as an outdated teaching mode in international law and advocates for a broader, more culturally diverse legal pedagogy.

  • Koskenniemi, Martti. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511494222

    This influential monograph tracks the emergence of international law as a discipline through an analysis of the biographies and preoccupation of those who taught the subject at universities across Europe.

  • Lachs, Manfred. The Teacher in International Law: Teachings and Teaching. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986.

    This seminal book, written by the former president of the International Court of Justice, focuses on “the teacher” of international law, considering the teacher an active element in history as influencing law-making, decision-making, and the application of law. It is a study of teaching (singular) rather than teachings (plural) in international law, explained through the lens of a Western-oriented “Great Man theory” history of international law.

  • Roberts, Anthea. Is International Law International? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190696412.001.0001

    With its comparative law approach to international law, this book is an important contribution to the topic of teaching. By means of careful empirical analysis, Roberts identifies how different national communities of international lawyers construct their understanding of international law, belying the field’s claim to universality. Although largely situated within the elite in both voice and scope, Roberts compellingly identifies the ways in which the academy limits access through exclusivity.

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