And I thought I knew con law: Pigeons, corn pellets and the transformative effect of Larry Tribe’s teaching


Laurence Tribe

Credit: Harvard Law School Yearbook

The first lesson Larry Tribe taught me in his Constitutional Law fall 1975 class at the start of my second year at HLS concerned pigeons and corn pellets. I had read the article Professor Tribe had assigned us to read, about the pigeons and the pellets and the magic lever the smart pigeons learned to push, which, while denying the bird a pellet immediately, allowed the wise pigeon to collect many more pellets later. (This is the lever to which Kathleen Sullivan alluded in her tribute to Professor Tribe in the Summer 2020 tribute: “His imagery was vivid: A constitution was a pre-commitment against future temptation, like Odysseus tying himself to the mast.”)

Why did that simple allegorical scientific article impress me? Well, like many, I came to Harvard Law School smart but not very wise. By the time Tribe’s class began, I was under the impression that I knew con law and that this would be merely a refresher course, for I had had three con law classes in college, and two in graduate school. Unlike Professor Sullivan, who came to Professor Tribe’s class with some feel for how magical his class would be, I had little sense of his reputation, only the advice of Professor Arthur Miller, at the end of our first year in law school, who, when asked for advice on classes to take the following year, admonished us to take Tribe’s class—“It may become the highlight of your time at HLS,” or words to that effect.

By the time the class was completed in December, I was no longer ignorant of the transformative effect Professor Tribe could have on a young, impressionable mind seeking enlightenment and knowledge. The pages of the simple diary that I kept for my days at law school were filled with praise for this class, “another amazing Tribe class” being a common entry.

Indeed, while I had some other wonderful teachers at HLS (the aforementioned Arthur Miller among them), and some not so memorable, only John Hart Ely’s Advanced Con Law class approached Tribe’s every-single-day-at-the-top-of-his-game approach to teaching.