In 1987, our last year as students at Harvard Law School, we formed a group called NOPE. No matter how rich we became, even if we could credit Harvard for our careers, we vowed to never contribute anything of financial value to its endowment: Not One Penny Ever. NOPE. We took our share of responsibility for three bitter years, but we also blamed the faculty for their indifference to higher values and to students.
More than a hundred of our classmates signed the NOPE pledge and the story hit the AP wires. Rereading the old newspaper articles about our little revolt, we see that our gripes were imperfectly articulated to say the least. (See, for example, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-02-22/news/mn-5117_1.) Now we would say that, despite the Latin phrase in the university’s seal, the Harvard Law School rarely stands for truth or other high values. It does not prepare students for success; it brands them for success. At best, the law school distracts students from more important things for three years. At worst, the Harvard Law experience is morally corrosive, because some students look to the institution for truth and wisdom, but it delivers neglect and cynical politics.
Now we are taking a break to write a book called Boiling Over at Harvard Law. We describe—as part memoir and part investigative report—the dark side of the Harvard experience. We show the alcohol abuse and recreational excursions into marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, the sexual perversions, and, worse, the long stretches of ennui at a time when students should instead be thrilled to pursue wisdom. We tell the tale of one student who hid in his apartment in 1600 Massachusetts Avenue, painting abstracts instead of attending class during the second and third years. We hope our readers will use these details to embark on a broader critique of a self-absorbed institution that has churned out generations of America’s political elite.
Maybe it shouldn’t, but all of this matters, because the Harvard brand is so strong; the scarlet letter H goes a long way. That stamp was on display on January 20, 2009, when a Chief Justice who got his degree from Harvard Law swore in a President who received his J.D. from the same institution – and who stood near a First Lady who had done the same. Not since HLS alumnus Rutherford B. Hayes (Class of 1845) was president were things so sweet for the HLS community.
Harvard’s myth-makers would have you believe that Barack Obama’s character was shaped for the better during his three years in Cambridge. We are convinced that it was not. In rounding up 500 ambitious, intelligent students every year a random distribution of fortunes combined with Harvard brand equity will take some law graduates into greatness—and some into the pit. The myth may propel some to high positions. The substance of the institution does not.
Our description of the law school, unlike past critiques, touches the institution’s core. We believe the center there is hollowed out and rotten with a toxic faculty that poisons those around it. Some graduates do not show obvious signs of damage. Perhaps they were not as sensitive as we were to the toxins.
Harvard’s apologists might try to limit our observations to an odd period in the law school’s history. The late 1980s were indeed an ugly time when the battles between the Critical Legal Studies crowd and the more conventional scholars left scars. That was then, this is now, the apologists might say. Even so, our history covers two years in Michelle Obama’s education, not to mention the period right before Barack became the first African-American editor-in-chief of the law review. This was an important time at Harvard, if for no other reason than because it formed part of the untold biography of the world’s most powerful couple. And despite former Dean – and now Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan’s efforts to make Harvard a better place since we graduated, we believe a real remedy for Harvard’s problems would come from something more than free coffee and cookies, from change more substantial than smaller first-year sections and more international courses. The law school’s flaws, we claim, are more fundamental.
Generation after generation, Harvard Law has been home to arrogant teachers who reinforce the arrogance of students already impressed by their own college grades, LSAT scores, and other accomplishments. That arrogance prevents bonds of humanity from developing into community. That arrogance extinguishes the curiosity and the humility necessary to understand the world. The HLS faculty is full of geeks who did extremely well on law school exams but never developed the whimsy or the poetry or the jazz to make them truly great people. For the most part, they are neither outstanding philosophers nor accomplished practitioners. Clever but not wise, they sneer at the commoners (their own graduates) who draft contracts, litigate cases, and serve on lower courts.
True, Harvard is a training ground for the country’s elite. But who is really happy with the results? If the law school can’t pursue its mission with character, integrity, and humility, it should forfeit its special place in our national life.
Look to Barack’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, for a telling contrast. Lincoln, mocked by the East Coast elite, was a hard-working and gangly man from the frontier. Too poor to attend an Ivy League school, he learned the law through his own studies and apprenticeships. Lincoln did not lord it over other people; he acknowledged a Lord above his own head. (We’ll stop here, since we had better not talk too much about the Almighty if we want Harvard to pay any attention. Even at the Divinity School He has nearly disappeared from view.)
After the Civil War, Lincoln reminded the nation of the abyss, in order to inspire us to reach for the stars. Lincoln’s address at the Second Inaugural, no doubt, was about truth. Tested by death in the White House and by losses across the country, Lincoln schooled the nation on its pain and its healing. “With malice toward none,” he said, “with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” We are willing to bet that Harvard Law professors don’t talk like that.
Michael Christian ’87 is retired in San Diego. Prof. Afsheen Radsan ’87 teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota.