'A Great Dread of Vulgarity': A Novel Perspective on Christopher Columbus Langdell and the Origins of the Case Method in American Legal Education
Stanford Law School
April 4, 2010
When he introduced the case method of teaching to Harvard Law School in the 1870s, Christopher Columbus Langdell permanently changed the shape of American legal education. Despite the enormity of Langdell’s influence on legal pedagogy, we understand surprisingly little about what he intended to accomplish with his innovations. This Article offers an original interpretation of Langdell’s contributions to the way we think about the law and legal education. Reading Langdell in tandem with Gilbert Osmond, the central male character in Henry James’s 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, shows Langdell to be an example of a particular type of late-nineteenth-century American intellectual. The comparison with Osmond reveals the extent to which Langdell’s creation of the case method was informed by his disaffection from what he perceived as the vulgarity of his culture. The case method, like Langdell’s work on equity pleading, is the product of his nostalgic vision of an imaginary past in which authoritarian individuals exercised unquestioned power over others. By seeing Langdell in the cultural context provided by James’s novel, we can better understand the unique nature of his contribution to American law.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 65working papers series
Date posted: April 5, 2010 ; Last revised: April 12, 2010
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