James O. Freedman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Liberal Arts and Higher Education: Conversation with James O. Freedman, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former President of Dartmouth and of the University of Iowa; 4/18/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Teachers, Mentors, and Heroes

You went to Harvard and then to Yale Law School. And I was struck, in reading your autobiographical essay, with how something changed in you that made you more comfortable with being a student. What was that?

Yes, I've tried, myself, to figure that out. I, certainly, at Harvard did well enough, but was not exceptional. A good part of the Harvard years were years of kind of post-adolescent depression and lack of certainty and groping around for what life might offer. I then worked for two years after college. By the time I went back to law school, I think I was more mature and there was something about law school that was just, to me, dazzling. I just loved those professors. I didn't want to leave after three years. It was just a wonderful experience.

You were a journalist in between?

I was a journalist in between, that's right.

And you suggested that that contributed also to your enthusiasm?

It may well have. It certainly put me in closer touch with public affairs and made me -- we're talking now at a local level, city council, police court, things of that sort. But all of that made me think it would be a good thing to be a lawyer.

At Yale, you encountered and studied under one of the two mentors in your life -- Alexander Bickel, who was a Professor of Law.


Tell us his impact on you and the educational journey you've taken.

Alex Bickel had an enormous impact on me. He is a man who was born in Bucharest, came to this country at age twelve, became a brilliant student himself, clerked for Justice Frankfurter. He was, in the classroom, electric. Alex Bickel had a mind of enormous originality. He encouraged students to engage him and debate him. He was enormously generous. He helped me when I wanted to enter law teaching. Alex Bickel was the most important teacher I've ever had.

What did he teach you?

Constitutional Law. He was a constitutional law person, but he had views on constitutional law which were quite out of the received conventional wisdom at the time, and today, I think, sadly, are hardly regarded at all. I regard them highly, but history has, in a sense, passed by his views. Maybe they'll come back someday.

What were those views?

Well, he is very much a person of judicial restraint.

I see.

Very much a person of keeping the Supreme Court out of federal courts, generally, out of decisions that ought to be made by legislative and elected officials.

So he would have been much exasperated by the recent election in Florida?

Well, I think so, yes. I think so.

He taught you, you say, the morality of consent and the procedures by which public decisions are made?

Yes. Part of what Bickel understood was that society had to develop organically. One of his heroes was Edmund Burke. He admired Burke's sense of society as a kind of a coral reef of beliefs and views that have been accumulated over many, many centuries. And he wanted the Supreme Court to play a role that generated widespread consent, rather than just, by edict, announce this is what the law will be, because he thought that didn't have a chance of catching on, that one needed to generate in society a general consent.

Indeed, I'm not sure whether he thought Brown against the Board [of Education], which declared segregation unconstitutional, was a wise decision in a scholarly sense, but he was very pleased with the Court saying, "We will do this, not immediately, but with all deliberate speed" -- to be done slowly, carefully, building up kind of a basis in society for acceptance of it.

The man who argued that case, Brown v. Board of Education, was Thurgood Marshall, whom you law-clerked for.

That's right.

Later he was appointed to the Appellate Court and then the Supreme Court.

Indeed, Alex Bickel told me once -- he was a law clerk for Justice Frankfurter when that case was argued -- and he said that Justice Marshall's argument was the finest Supreme Court argument he had ever heard.

Tell us a little about Thurgood Marshall.

Well, there's a remarkable man. One of the great Americans, and I say in the book that I think that he has done more for race relations in this country than, perhaps, any individual except for Abraham Lincoln. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but he should be near the top. He's a remarkable man. He was so different from my law school professors, who were, of course, very scholarly and intellectual. I went to work for him right out of law school. He was a practical man. He wanted to know how trials worked, and when errors were made, allegedly, in lower courts. He was looking at trial tactics; he was looking at why they occurred. He was a much more pragmatic man than most law professors were, and that added a very nice dimension to my own growth.

He really carried the load of all the civil rights cases that went through the courts, leading up to Brown v. Board of Education, which he also argued.

He did indeed. And, indeed, not only carried the load, as you indicate, carried it both intellectually and physically. The story of his life is a story of riding in jalopies all across the South, without air-conditioning, unable to stay in hotels, unable to use facilities in gas stations. I mean, a really tough, hard existence.James Freedman, 1978 And, more than that, he carried the load in the theory of how to go to Brown against the Board. Many people in the Civil Rights movement disagreed with him, they thought he would lose that case. And if he lost it, things would be set back for another fifty years. That it was wiser to go prove that separate facilities weren't equal, one by one, rather than try to get them all declared unconstitutional.

So he had what you call, quoting Emerson, "a heroic mind."

He clearly did. He was a person who had a sense of destiny, and you could just feel it. Occasionally, you meet such individuals among your friends. You occasionally see such qualities in students. Thurgood Marshall knew from a very young age that he was destined to do important things. He felt it. He believed it. He wanted it. And he did have a heroic mind. It is interesting to me that once Brown against the Board was decided, he had really achieved his destiny. And that's when he began to think of other things. And, of course, finally became a judge.

In Brown v. Board of Education, we should note he used Gunnar Myrdal's book, The American Dilemma. In that text, a key draftsman was Ralph Bunche ...

That's right.

... who was another distinguished Black American. So both in their own ways worked to bring down the barriers of segregation.

That's right. Ralph Bunche had a very difficult career because he was black. He was, I believe, the first black person appointed a professor at Harvard, but only served a year or two and then went back to activities outside the academy. But that's exactly right. Kenneth Clark was another one. Of course, Kenneth Clark's experiments with asking black children to choose between white dolls and black dolls was also cited by the court, along with Gunnar Myrdal, as support for the decision.

In one of your essays, comparing Martin Luther King, Eudora Welty, Hugo Black, you're trying to find the features that exist in all of their lives, and you conclude by saying, "They teach us the importance of achieving a grip on our identity and a sense of our own calling." So let's take that as a platform to move into your focus on educating students, giving them a liberal arts education. What do you think that these heroes and that kind of an education can teach us about our own lives and how we should lead them?

What I think a liberal education, at its best, can do is make us say, "You live but once." Everyone has unusual abilities, unique abilities, and part of the satisfactions of life come from deploying those abilities in the name of a great cause. Martin Luther King is a good example. I think when he was twenty-six years old in Montgomery, he had no idea that history would present him with the opportunities it did. But the point is he seized the opportunities. He saw that it was his destiny. Because of his talents, because he was a stranger to Montgomery at that moment, he could do something.

I think the same is true with Justice Black, who was a conventional plaintiff's lawyer and got into the Senate, and suddenly became wedded to a series of social ideas about public policy and, of course, about the Supreme Court. When Justice Black got to the Supreme Court, all of his law clerks report that the first day when they reported for work, he handed them a copy of Tacitus and said, "Take the first week and read this, because all of the evils that Tacitus describes in the Roman Empire, of what power does to corrupt, of how government seeks to impose improperly on people, those are all in Tacitus and they're all what we're talking about today." He informed himself with a larger view of human nature and human conduct.

What about Eudora Welty, who also is in that essay?

What I like about Eudora Welty is the that there's a woman who still lives in the house in which she grew up; who rarely leaves Jackson, Mississippi. You may know the lectures that were published as One Writer's Beginning that she delivered at Harvard. In the last sentence of that volume says something on the order of, "A sheltered life can also be a daring one." And she lived a sheltered, quiet life, never married, but she made the most of it. She came to look at people and to look deeply into people and learn how to describe people, and, of course, became an exquisite storywriter.

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