An Essay by Bruce Silver ’65-’66
I am a Harvard Law School dropout, which makes me a member of a rare and unenviable set. My late father, who never got over my decision to leave America’s premier law school, chided me for being bright enough to get into Harvard but not bright enough to stay. From about two years after leaving to the present, I have shared my father’s assessment.
Why did I withdraw? I wish I knew. Health was not the reason. I was well when I arrived and when I left. The work was difficult, but I was up to the challenge. I did not revel in being on the receiving end of the Socratic method, but how many of us did? I was, however, usually prepared and was handling my fear of being embarrassed. I suspected that a callow youth from the mountain West would have to adjust to the sophistication of Cambridge. I was right, but adjusting was painless. I had help from new friends. I recall with pleasure the occasions that a few of us found time to go on weekends to Boston’s museums and midweek to movies at the Brattle Theatre.
I was probably having the same setbacks and successes that most other first-year students had. Nothing was amiss, and then gradually everything was amiss. Having attended a few teach-ins and rallies against our involvement in Vietnam, I began skipping classes, although I remained curious about “those wise restraints that make us free.” I decided that I was not going to participate in the Ames competition, and a few days later I was summoned to meet with an associate dean to justify my decision. I said that the catalogue under which I entered Harvard Law described the competition as voluntary, and I wondered why I was being reprimanded for not treating it as obligatory. Eventually, I decided to participate but was so poorly prepared that I did not advance beyond the opening round. By December I was spending far more time in antiwar protests than in Langdell Hall. Instead of reading Holmes, Brandeis, and case law, I was reading Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, and The Trial.Dickens’ and Kafka’s criticisms of the law and judicial institutions induced me, a newly hatched antinomian, to put down my texts. I had lost my way toward an LL.B. and had become a closet radical whose view of the law was closer to Thoreau’s than to Justice Story’s.
After leaving Harvard and spending a year as a graduate student at Berkeley, which I also left in good standing, I returned to the University of Colorado and completed a Ph.D. in philosophy. For the past 31 years I have taught philosophy at the University of South Florida. The job is pleasant but not so fulfilling as practicing or teaching law. I retire next year.
In the end, withdrawing from Harvard Law School plagues me because it should. I forfeited the chance to earn the degree that I truly wanted. Almost no one in command of his faculties sacrifices what he wants most unless he must. I also lost my chance, sophomoric as it sounds, to grow. The strict rules of attendance, the voluntary-mandatory Ames competition, the piles of homework, the humiliation at failing correctly to “state the case”–each of these was designed with an end in view. After all, self-assured graduates emerge with more than a share in Harvard’s reputation and a diploma. One certain path to maturity required us to respond to intimidating professors, match the wits and industry of our classmates, and study to and beyond exhaustion. For several months I was a citizen of this intellectually rich community, and then I chose to emigrate. I let an opportunity and its rewards slip away. Henry James could drop out of Harvard Law School without regrets, but my contributions to world culture, some articles in recondite journals, fall infinitely short of The Bostonians or The Portrait of a Lady.
I suspect that immaturity and distractions got the better of my desire to become a Law School graduate. After a foreshortened academic year, I closed the door to a superb education and to all it provided. Although much in my life has changed in the many years since I left Harvard, this has not: I am Bruce Silver rather than Bruce Silver, LL.B., Harvard Class of 1968. Deep in midlife that difference still hurts.