Owen Fiss on His Mentor Harry Kalven and Great Teaching at the Law School

Great Teaching And The 'Escalation Of Insights'
Hal Gregersen
May 11, 2017

Owen Fiss, the longtime Yale law professor, has a new book out. Called Pillars of Justice, it devotes a chapter each to thirteen lawyers who influenced his thinking (and not incidentally, also left their marks on the world). I don’t know Fiss, and I don’t know much about legal history, but the portraits he paints contain rich insight. They have as much to say about great leadership and inspired teaching—and the crucial role of asking questions in both—as about the evolving legal doctrine of the civil rights era.

Take, for example, his account of how he was mentored by Harry Kalven, a leading light at the University of Chicago Law School—an apprenticeship that started when Fiss joined its faculty in the summer of 1968. As Fiss describes their interactions, they always began with a question, which grew into an “intense, all-absorbing” dialogue as the two walked through a nearby perennial flower garden and along the Chicago lakefront. “His method was conversation,” Fiss writes of Kalven:

“He would manage to find in the words of the apprentice glimmers of insight, which he would then restate in terms so eloquent and profound that they deepened understanding and encouraged further inquiry and comment. The apprentice felt obliged to say more, to think harder, to look at the problem from a new perspective. The conversation became an escalation of insights. That was the core of my apprenticeship with Harry. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and it revealed the special qualities of the master.”