Remembering Professor Derrick Bell
Professor Derrick Albert Bell touched more people than most of us "mere mortals" could ever dream, Patricia J. Williams blogs at the Nation in a touching retrospective of her years as one of his students at Harvard Law School.
I met Professor Derrick Albert Bell when I was 19 years old. I was an undergraduate, but a student of his had invited me to sit in on one of his classes in constitutional law at Harvard. At that point in my life ... I was lost in the something-or-other stage of my life and couldn't for the life of me make up my squishy, floaty mind.
Professor Bell's lecture fixed all that. He had that class divided into interest and advocacy groups, taking various sides in the Supreme Court cases they were studying. The teams were arguing with each other like mad, and the passion and purpose flying around that room were like tangible objects. You had to duck to avoid getting laser-beamed by the sharp, whizzing commotion of high-octane ideas.
When I actually got to law school, I discovered that not every class was like Professor Bell's. This was around the same time that The Paper Chase came out, which highlighted the harsh questioning of the Socratic Method that then reigned supreme in most of legal academia. I cowered with my classmates in fear of what often felt like mockery or derision. In addition, there were not a lot of women in law school in those days -- we were only 8 percent of the class -- and sexism was only beginning to be addressed as just possibly inimical to the educational process. I had expected to love law school. Instead, I hated it within the first ten minutes.
Derrick Bell is the only reason I didn't leave. As he had in that first glimpse of his teaching, he made ideas come alive. He made the dry pages of treatises vivid; he never let us forget the human stories behind every tract, every suit, every appeal. He imbued legal education with a sense of purpose and responsibility: we weren't there for ourselves alone, but to live up to a calling and to become of service. He helped me reframe the sense of isolation and intimidation I felt as causes, as precisely the reasons there was an obligation to stay the course.
Read Patricia J. Williams' entire blog entry at the Nation.