Much has been written about the role that Harvard Law School played in the development of President-Elect Obama’s personality, temperament, management style, world view, and probably (though I haven’t seen this – yet) crossover dribble. Much of it, like this current piece in The New Republic, isn’t about Obama at all; Obama is a hook for a shop-worn tale about Harvard, or about Harvard Law School, or about the Harvard Law Review. In the case of TNR, there’s a shopworn tale about Yale, too, just for good measure.
The problem with these pieces is that they elevate the humanity of Obama above the humanity of everyone else at Harvard, not to mention everyone else in law school, or in college, or in the American educational system. Obama forged his special adult identity in the crucible of Harvard Law School, the story seems to go, while everyone else was off grinding away at the paper chase. Obama comes off as a supremely gifted thinker, writer, and leader, largely on account of his time in Cambridge. That’s not a bad just-so story, whether or not it’s true, but the implicit moral seems to be “so much for the rest of you,” who managed simply to survive law school and who forged your identities somewhere else, in spite of it.
Yesterday’s NYT op-ed about Obama and Harvard managed to invert the conventional narrative in a way that both celebrates Obama’s distinct character and achievements yet also brings out the humanity available to all who pass through the doors of Langdell Hall, the largest of Harvard’s law buildings, even to all who enter college or law school anywhere unsure of who, exactly we are or want to be.