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from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

Street Law: A Course in Practical Law
Fifth edition, 1994. 647 pages. ISBN: 0-314-02713-0 (hardback)
or 0-314-02935-4 (paperback). This book, a publication of the
National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law (Washington, DC),
is produced and sold by West Publishing Company, P.O. Box 64526,
St. Paul, Minnesota 55164. West is a part of International Thomson Publishing Inc.

An Outstanding Presentation
of Important Subject Matter

Albie Burke

The Street Law textbook is accompanied by a paperbound handbook of selected case reports and by a paperbound manual for the teacher. Together, the three volumes form an extraordinary set of materials which can serve in a variety of educational situations. They obviously can support courses in government or in constitutional law (with emphasis on civil liberties), but they also can facilitate the teaching of certain topics in United States history, English literature or journalism, and they can even be helpful in health courses that deal with family issues.

Street Law covers a broad range of subjects, some of which are subjects that one would expect to find in any law book for high- school students. Thus chapter 1 presents an "Introduction to Law and the Legal System," and chapter 2 is a survey of "Criminal Law and Juvenile Justice." However, there are chapters on civil law as well. Chapter 3, "Torts," explores the concept of personal responsibility in general, examines such selected topics as intentional injuries, negligence and strict liability, and considers some current questions of public policy. Chapter 4, "Consumer Law," has sections about deceptive sales practices, contracts, warranties, credit, default and collection practices. In chapter 5, "Family Law," the topics include the changing American family, marriage, legal rights of parents and children, foster care, adoption, divorce, and child-custody law. Chapter 6, "Housing Law," covers such topics as discrimination, the rights and duties of landlords and tenants, and zoning. The seventh and last chapter, titled "Individual Rights and Liberties," emphasizes constitutional matters: First Amendment issues, privacy, due process, equal protection, and the rights and responsibilities that apply in the workplace. This chapter is followed by seven appendices, including the Constitution of the United States, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, summaries of major provisions of some federal civil-rights laws, and a lengthy glossary of legal terms.

Each chapter in Street Law is organized around a series of problems -- brief narratives of situations that raise questions about what laws mean, how laws are interpreted and applied, or how specific laws and judicial decisions reflect constitutional principles. Each problem is followed by explanatory text: Here the writers try to help the student think analytically about the situation that has been presented, and they provide hints to what a good solution might be. The format is pleasant, enhanced by color photographs (usually connected with the problems under discussion) and by attractive graphic devices marking transitions in the text.

Helping the Instructor

The teacher's manual is keyed to the problems in the textbook. It tells the instructor what each problem is about, why the problem is important, and what the issues are; and to help the instructor prepare for classroom discussions, it suggests how students are likely to respond to the matters in question. Each chapter in the manual has a list of "Special Projects" (such as library work, interview assignments, and field trips) that can help the students to explore selected topics, and the chapter usually ends with material that can be used for setting up one or two mock trials. The material for each trial includes statements by witnesses, a list of the documents (if any) that are to be entered into evidence, and suggested instructions for the judge to give to the jury.

The Handbook of Selected Court Cases is particularly useful in supplementing the textbook's chapter 7, which addresses some constitutional subjects. The Handbook contains excerpts (averaging some six pages in length) from 31 Supreme Court cases, most of which have been decided in the years since 1945, and most of which have turned on provisions of the Bill of Rights or of the Fourteenth Amendment. The reports are brief, but there is enough material to enable the instructor to lead good discussions of the issues involved. Those issues include church-and-state questions, radical speech, pornography, freedom of the press, search-and-seizure questions, protection from self-incrimination, and the right to representation by a lawyer. There are also cases that involve presidential power and executive privilege.

The value of reading court cases is that it impels students to deal with real-life situations and to enjoy the intellectual adventure of resolving those situations by the use of abstract reasoning. The educational payoffs can be considerable. Despite themselves, the students are led into critical thinking as they struggle to assess relevance and to formulate issues: What facts are really important here, and what facts are immaterial? What is the real problem or issue involved in the case? Is it X, as the plaintiffs assert, or is it Y, as the defendants say?

The Street Law volumes may represent a heavy investment for a school district to make, but they are almost unrivaled in their ability to present important subject matter and to launch students onto a course of critical thinking. Teachers should find these Street Law materials exciting to use.

This Good, Relevant Book
Fosters Critical Thinking

James M. Wagstaffe

If you were to hear someone mention a book entitled "Street Law," you would be justified in guessing that it was a book about juvenile justice or about the punishment of street crimes. You might even guess that it was a sociological tome about the "rules" that urban gangs devise to govern their activities. You'd be wrong, though, if you jumped to such a conclusion about the book I am reviewing here. West Publishing's Street Law is actually a slick, highly readable exegesis of legal principles that are relevant to the lives of young people.

Developed by the National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law, Street Law represents an ambitious effort to walk students through an impressively wide variety of legal subjects. It begins with a customary and somewhat pedestrian "Introduction to Law and the Legal System," followed by some 130 pages on criminal law and juvenile justice. Then, not to be accused of leaving anything out, the writers fill almost 400 pages with material about aspects of civil law -- torts, consumer regulations, civil liberties, housing law and even family law, for good measure.

There is no question that all this is too much; and students are expected not only to read the Street Law textbook but also to pore through the accompanying Handbook of Selected Court Cases, which contains edited versions of some of the most famous decisions issued by the Supreme Court of the United States. If a high-school teacher were to try to cover all of this material, the resulting course would last for two years.

The teacher, therefore, will have to be selective and will have to leave some topics at the dock when the didactic ship leaves port. I would argue that the chapters about family law and housing law, which together fill more than 100 pages, are too long and can be trimmed considerably; so can the 70-page chapter on consumer law, which sometimes becomes bogged down in arcane subjects such as "The Cost of Credit" and "Garnishment and Attachment."

Notwithstanding its length, however, Street Law is an excellent guide and is consistently strengthened by study tools that foster understanding through critical thinking. For example, a series of boxed "Law in Action" articles invite students to play the roles of public officials (such as judges, city councilmen or state legislators) who must decide cases or must draft new laws and regulations to deal with troublesome issues.

Another set of tools comprises articles titled "The Case of . . . ." There are dozens of these, covering a great variety of situations, and many of them ask the student to decide whether someone's rights have been violated. The cases have been chosen so that they cater to the interests of high-school readers, yet they are unusual enough to be thought-provoking. On page 478, for example, "The Case of . . . The Tenth-Grade Discipline Problem" describes a situation in which a high-school guidance counselor reviews a student's records, finds a remark about "a serious discipline problem" (written by one of the student's tenth-grade teachers), and relays this remark to a college that the student wants to attend. Now the reader must decide: Has the counselor violated the student's right to privacy? And what are the student's options?

There are also many "FYI" and "Advice" boxes, strewn throughout the book, that try to help the reader understand laws, decipher legal terminology, and employ a knowledge of law in dealing with real life. The "Advice" boxes contain important information about subjects such as fraud, spouse abuse, battery, date rape, and workplace problems.

At times, however, Street Law lapses into patronizing homilies. In the main text of the chapter about family law, for example, the section on separation and divorce says, "Many people see divorce as a way to end forever a relationship that has become unbearable" and "A couple should not seek a divorce in the heat of anger or without at least trying to work out their problems." Those extreme generalizations add very little to the discussion.

The teacher's manual that comes with Street Law has nearly 500 pages. Like the textbook, it is too long and sometimes cumbersome, yet it succeeds in guiding a teacher through the course. For each chapter in the textbook, the manual tabulates anticipated "learning outcomes," describes the results of actual cases that have been presented as problems in the textbook, and suggests alternative arguments that a teacher can use in furthering and guiding classroom debate.

Street Law is a successful effort, and the key to its success is that it focuses, almost continually, on topics that have immediate relevance to the lives of its readers. This book can provide many students with an enduring knowledge of how to avoid the legal pitfalls of everyday life, and it probably will inspire some students toward a real love of the law and toward a career at the bar.


Albie Burke, a specialist in the constitutional and legal history of the United States, is a professor in the Department of History at California State University, Long Beach. He is also an associate editor of The History Teacher, the quarterly of the Society for History Education.

James M. Wagstaffe is a constitutional lawyer, a specialist in First Amendment cases, and a partner in the law firm of Cooper, White & Cooper (San Francisco).

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