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  • The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C. C. Langdell, 1826–1906
  • Michael A. Olivas
The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C. C. Langdell, 1826–1906, by Bruce A. Kimball. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 448 pp. $60.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8078-3257-8

It is often attributed to Henry Kissinger, but it was Woodrow Wilson who likely first said that the reason academic squabbles were so vicious was because the stakes were so small.1 Now, along comes Bruce A. Kimball's towering biography of Christopher C. Langdell, the founding dean of Harvard Law School, to remind us that the stakes are not really small at all. Langdell, who served as the HLS dean from 1870–1895, is, for the genre, a fascinating character who played a crucial role in professionalizing the study of law, in elevating HLS to the top rank of legal education, and in assuring Harvard University's true rise to prominence. Many of these strands have been treated by other historians and observers, but by considering Langdell with President Charles W. Eliot, readers of the Kimball volume need not be legal educators or lawyers to appreciate the manner in which the rise in achievement of individual units can elevate the entire enterprise. In 1870, when the young dean was hired to build a true law school, Harvard had the country's preeminent scientists, but had not yet under-taken [End Page 547] to build the magnificent medical education enterprise that became the Harvard Medical School or the eventual Harvard Business School. In its own way, the entire backstory of the rise of Harvard, paralleling that of its Law School, is fascinating.

Kimball's book is the culmination of a decade's worth of articles on Langdell, most published earlier in legal education and educational history venues. I have read several of them, each interesting in its own way: on the case method pedagogy, on developing civil procedure as a field of study and instruction, on women in legal education, on professional fields, and on young Christopher Langdell. Reading them piecemeal over the years, I had not appreciated the sheer virtuosity of Kimball's project. There is not an HLS memorandum, a file, a scrap of research, I daresay a conversation that he has not examined and woven into this story. The whole is even better than the parts, making this a wonderful and fascinating read. I learned many new things in the sweep of this history, even after having read his earlier articles episodically over the years. The best example is how Harvard struggled to constitute itself: dealing with the admission of women into the College and into the fledgling professional schools, losing an opportunity to absorb women into its medical school (Boston University merged the New England Female Medical College into its own growing Medical School, as Harvard passed on the opportunity), and Langdell's opposition to women in HLS delaying by many decades their eventual admission. African Americans fared not much better, although they were admitted to HLS in a trickle, beginning in 1872. International students did somewhat better, with the first students from Japan enrolling in the early 1870s; even as Chinese were being treated despicably in federal immigration law by the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Chinese students began attending in 1882. HLS enrolled Boston's marginalized Irish immigrants, and Jews enrolled, even as anti-Semitism affected enrollment policies of all the Ivy League schools.

Several exceptional studies of these allied phenomena have arisen over the years, most notably Edward T. Silva's and Sheila A. Slaughter's 1984 analysis of the formalization of academic disciplines, Serving Power: The Making of the Academic Social Science Expert2 and Dan Oren's 1986 Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale,3 neither of which are cited by Kimball. Indeed, if there were one facet of this engaging history that I would have liked to have seen better developed, it would be Kimball's more thoroughly situating the rise of HLS as the exemplar of professional schools and the professions in the history of U.S. higher education. He passes quickly over parallel developments in medical education...


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