Off the Record: Ideas of Harvard Law School


President Barack Obama ’91’s ascendancy has provided the occasion to consider his most recent intellectual roots, the hallways and classrooms of HLS; his election has placed the atmosphere, methodology, and philosophy of Harvard Law School in the media spotlight. Below, a look at just some accounts of the school, its character, and its influence in recent articles:

Harvard as Harbinger

New Republic editor Noam Scheiber writes this week on the contrast between Bill Clinton and Obama’s law school alma maters, and how their differences might be manifest in the distinction between the new administration and the last Democratic presidency. Yale, Scheiber asserts, was a less hierarchical, more laid-back environment where intellects were allowed to roam free; tightly-wound Harvard the opposite:

Obama’s self-control is nearly inhuman, Clinton’s is famously lacking…Part of the explanation…lies in the elite institutions that socialized them–namely Harvard and Yale, their respective law schools. The two schools stand on opposite sides of a cultural chasm in the academic world. Even more than that, they stand for different theories of governing…

As it happened, Obama’s first-year section was the most conventionally taught of the bunch. “We felt as if we had the hardest, worst, most inflexible section,” says a former classmate, David Dante Troutt. “We felt like a control group in the presence of folks receiving the revolutionary new drug.” This atmosphere sometimes brought out the worst in the class: Contracts professor Ian Macneil once arranged a meeting to discuss a line in his textbook some had complained was sexist; the students spent most of the hour pumping him for exam information…

The orthodoxy of Obama’s first year coincided with a decline in [Critical Legal Studies’] influence after a bruising tenure battle the previous summer. Obama would have shed few tears. A classmate remembers him constantly pleading with Roberto Unger, a CLS ringleader who taught an upper-level course, to “bring the theorizing back down to earth.”

Harvard as Chutzpah

In Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section, Drake Bennett wrote about the implications of so many Harvard affiliates entering (or in some cases returning) to power in D.C. Among the problems he discerns in his history of Harvard’s relationship to the U.S. government – and the law school’s relationship, in particular – is its tendency to become too cozy with the powers that be. In the process, he writes, it has tended to become dismissive of student ideas or needs:

Since its founding nearly four centuries ago, Harvard’s relationship to political power has evolved, the school’s prominence ebbing and flowing. But in general the link has grown cozier, and that has gone a long way toward explaining the school’s rise from a small seminary for New England gentry to the most prestigious university in the country, if not the world. At the same time, say a few observers, the proximity to power has also brought costs for the university, making it a poster child for a particular brand of intellectual overreach and arrogance – the “best and the brightest” of David Halberstam’s book, which chronicled how some of Harvard’s finest minds went to Washington with President Kennedy and gave the country the Vietnam War.

…the sense of outsized importance that came with this “sharing” ultimately proved costly to Harvard, according to Morton Keller, coauthor of “Making Harvard Modern” and an emeritus history professor at Brandeis. It contributed, he argues, to the high-handedness with which the university administration responded to mounting student unhappiness on campus throughout the 1960s, a growing unrest that culminated in the riots and student takeover of a campus administrative building in 1969.

Harvard as Humble Pie

In a New York Times piece from January 17, John Matteson ’86 discussed how his middling performance at HLS humbled him, ultimately channeling him away from the blind pursuit of prestige and toward his ultimate destiny of literature professor. Last year, Matteson’s choice was vindicated; he won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Louisa May Alcott.

The hardest, most precious lessons taught at Harvard Law [are] the finitude of one’s own powers; the twin, paradoxical necessities of self-reliance and interdependence; and the humanity that comes when one finds oneself a long way from perfection, and then finds new ways of striving…

Far from being a place for feeling exceptional, my Harvard Law was a place for feeling strangely ordinary. Inside the Ivy League, an Ivy League pedigree makes one precisely as distinctive as being Chinese in Shanghai. The means of distinguishing oneself become progressively scarce and difficult. And while Harvard Law affords every possibility, almost every student starts out chasing a similar vision and the occasions for disappointment outnumber the prospects for glory…

If one has a character flaw, Harvard Law will expose it. The long hours, thequantity and difficulty of the work, and the pressure to excel are a recipe forfrayed nerves, shortened tempers and durable frustrations.