I was saddened to learn this weekend that the legendary Harvard Law professor Clark Byse died earlier this month at the age of 95. Byse is often said to have been the inspiration for Professor Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase.” Harvard’s press release is here.
I came to know Professor Byse in my third year of law school in the Spring of 1997 when I was writing a seminar paper on the Socratic Method. (That seminar paper later became a short article, The Decline of the Socratic Method at Harvard, 78 Neb. L. Rev. 113 (1999).) Byse had been a famously Socratic professor at Harvard before he retired from teaching there, and I visited Professor Byse in his office and asked if he was willing to be interviewed as part of my seminar research. He didn’t know me from Adam, but I explained to him that I was interested in his views of different teaching styles as a student and how his views as a student had influenced his style as a young professsor.
I’ll never forget his response. “As a young professor?!?!”, he proclaimed. “That was 1939!!!! Do you think I can remember all the way back to 1939?!?! Up yours, Buster!!!” After about a second of surprise I burst into laughter. Here was this legendary professor, still obviously quite with it, poking fun at his own age and proclaiming “up yours” to a student he had never seen before. I sensed that it was a test, and I was right: Upon seeing my open laughter, Professor Byse immediately softened and a big smile broke across his face. He asked, “Are you free for lunch sometime? I’d be happy to talk about it.”
About a week later, he and I met for lunch at the Hark and he charmed me with stories about his career, about teaching, and about how legal academia had changed in his five decades as a law professor. It was an extraordinary treat for a student interested in academia, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Byse was somewhat saddened that his rigorous Socratic approach had gone out of style; he thought that being absolutely demanding in class was the best possible way to sharpen the minds of students and teach them how to “think like a lawyer.” He saw it as something like Marine Corps boot camp: very tough, but very tough for a very good reason. He thought it unfortunate that the modern approach was “kinder and gentler,” as he feared that rigor had been sacrificed along the way.
I occasionally kept in touch with Professor Byse to let him know how I was doing. I remember being particularly proud when I wrote to tell him I had been hired at GW; he wrote me back a very gracious letter in return that I still have in my files. Anyway, I’m sure many VC readers knew Professor Byse much better than I did; I hope some readers who knew Byse will consider leaving a comment or two about him.
UPDATE: One recollection from a former student is here.