How Can Schools Promote Rule of Law Norms in Transitioning Societies? Lessons from Post-Communist Europe

Doyle Stevick





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The rule of law as an institutional achievement in post-authoritarian societies will remain vulnerable and incomplete unless the public comes to understand and to embrace rule of law norms. In other words, a cultural transformation is needed to fulfill the institutional transformation. UNESCO observed that societies must “create the cultural and social conditions in which the rule of law is respected and promulgated.” The recent backsliding of Poland and Hungary show that even seemingly successful cases of post-authoritarian transition had not fully consolidated public support for democracy and the rule of law. Successful transitions may require forty years or more, and schools are the most promising vehicle for promoting such change.

Research has focused on institutional change, while the cultural practices and norms that support the rule of law in everyday life have not been clearly identified. How schools can advance these practices and norms is even less clear. Because schools often function as community hubs that reach adults and students across society, they are uniquely positioned to advance rule of law norms in society. With JUSTRAC support, this study gathered the perspectives and insights of local experts in civic education and the rule of law in post-communist countries across the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia during May-July, 2018, in order to shed light on the ongoing challenges of overcoming authoritarian legacies and cultivating rule of law norms. The study was extended to include Romania in September. It asked the following questions:

  1. How does authoritarian rule influence culture, and how does its legacy persist in transitioning societies?
  2. How can schools help society to develop a robust rule of law culture?
  3. How can individual, cultural and institutional transformations be achieved?

This study revealed a process of cultural change under authoritarian rule. When confronted with authoritarian rule, people are forced to make adaptations to power in order to survive. Over time, these adaptations turn into habits. When new generations grow up amidst these new habits, and are socialized into them—rather than choosing them consciously—the adaptations become cemented into cultural practice. Once established as a normal part of social interaction and cultural practice, they often persist even when authoritarian rule disappears. While often necessary under authoritarian rule, these practices can be counterproductive for building the rule of law and democratic governance. Identifying the kinds of distortions produced by authoritarian rule can allow cultural insiders to distinguish between valued cultural traditions and adjustments to power that no longer benefit society. Key findings include:

  1. Isolation, not ideology, was the most enduring legacy of authoritarian rule;
  2. Rebuilding habits of communication and cooperation is essential, and building relationships enables them to flourish;
  3. Purging ideological materials and reconstructing civic education was generally successful, but not sufficient to replace the forms of learning (or political socialization) that youth and citizens experience in the daily life of a free society;
  4. Rules and the law are often seen as tools of state oppression, but experience with consent-based rule-making often changed attitudes of teachers and students, sometimes their parents, and even children as young as kindergarten; and
  5. The most promising avenues for advancing rule of law norms come not from additional reform to traditional instruction, i.e., civic education courses, but from direct experiences of civic participation, including within the classroom and school.

Foreign partners may offer support to local efforts to effect cultural change. Such a transformation requires a range of smaller changes, from individual mindsets to the practices of small institutions like schools. Programs can help to support such changes, and improve communication and cooperation, by incorporating collaborative problem-solving, considering multiple perspectives, providing a set of choices to be considered by participants from the local context, grappling directly with the problematic legacies of the past, and exploring local understandings and meanings of key terms and concepts.

Specific program recommendations that emerge from this study’s findings include:

  1. Help teachers to develop classroom management skills that exemplify rule of law norms;
  2. Help school directors develop approaches to school management that manifest rule of law norms and democratic processes;
  3. Design foreign-supported programs to cultivate new relationships, teams and networks, within which constructive communication and collaboration can flourish;
  4. Strongly support substitutes to compensate for the absence of experience-based civic learning or political socialization during post-authoritarian transitions;
  5. Assess the impact of civic skills and approaches on school climate and teacher retention; and
  6. In partnership with teacher-training institutions, create model schools that can be professional development hubs for student teaching experiences and leadership practicums, thereby seeding other schools.

These approaches, when combined with existing guidance from earlier studies and lessons learned for the reform of formal civic education coursework, will help to advance a more pervasive and sustainable commitment to rule of law norms in transitional societies.