Mark S. Weiner

A World of Students in Salzburg

In Austria, Europe on December 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Greetings from Salzburg, Austria! My wife and I are having a grand time in this beautiful city, surely one of the most charming in the world. “This is what happens when you combine great wealth, clerical density, and gorgeous mountains,” exclaimed Stephanie happily as we sipped mulled wine tonight beneath the arches of an old monastery, huddling together as the snow fell lightly on the cobbled streets. We arrived here yesterday from Hannover, sped to our destination by the miracle of an Intercity Express train.

This morning I taught the first of three intensive classes on U.S. constitutional law at the University of Salzburg, and before another day goes by, I wanted to share an interesting fact about the students in my class: most of them aren’t Austrian. Instead, in addition to three Austrian students, they hail from Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Wales—all participants in the Erasmus student exchange program. It’s another instance I’ve encountered on my travels of a new way of legal thinking slowly being born within multi-national Europe.

I saw it in the gleaming halls of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, where I talked with faculty and students from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Romania, Poland, Turkey, and Albania. I saw it in Brussels, where the office of legal advisor to the European Parliament includes lawyers from every EU member state. I saw it in Würzburg, where my students included Germans from migrant backgrounds, most notably from Azerbaijan, with which the law school has a history of educational exchange. And I saw it this morning in a dramatic way here in Salzburg. The parallel that comes to my own mind repeatedly is the transformation of the law of England after the Norman Conquest—the development of a new law, a new outlook, and ultimately a new people, under changed political and institutional circumstances.

As always, what I learn, and what my students learn, often comes from the unexpected. In Würzburg, one of the things that may have affected my students most wasn’t my discussion of the different ways German and American lawyers think about legal interpretation, but instead the fact that when we found the door to the building in which we were about to hold class locked, I tried to help the student assistant find a solution to the problem by seeing if I could force open a window (rather than sitting around waiting for someone else to solve the issue—American faculty, apparently, being comparatively proactive).

Today, after teaching for six hours about the nature of American legal education, the origins and structure of the Constitution, and the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment (which prohibits government from taking private property unless it does so for public use and provides just compensation), I asked the students what struck them most about our time together so far. To vigorous nods from the rest of the class, a student from Poland said it was when I had spontaneously played this famous old “Schoolhouse Rock” video after we closely read the preamble to the Constitution. She didn’t realize how great a role the Constitution plays in American popular culture, and she confessed that she could never have recited the preamble of her own nation’s founding document.

More again before long—for now, we’re off to eat dinner in a restaurant nestled into the hillside above the town (and, yes, we will be thinking of “The Sound of Music” as we walk there through the city streets!).

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