The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C.C. Langdell, 1826-1906

The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C.C. Langdell, 1826-1906

The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C.C. Langdell, 1826-1906

The Inception of Modern Professional Education: C.C. Langdell, 1826-1906


Christopher C. Langdell (1826-1906) is one of the most influential figures in the history of American professional education. As dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, he conceived, designed, and built the educational model that leading professional schools in virtually all fields subsequently emulated. In this first full-length biography of the educator and jurist, Bruce Kimball explores Langdell's controversial role in modern professional education and in jurisprudence.

Langdell founded his model on the idea of academic meritocracy. According to this principle, scholastic achievement should determine one's merit in professional life. Despite fierce opposition from students, faculty, alumni, and legal professionals, he designed and instituted a formal system of innovative policies based on meritocracy. This system's components included the admission requirement of a bachelor's degree, the sequenced curriculum and its extension to three years, the hurdle of annual examinations for continuation and graduation, the independent career track for professional faculty, the transformation of the professional library into a scholarly resource, the inductive pedagogy of teaching from cases, the organization of alumni to support the school, and a new, highly successful financial strategy.

Langdell's model was subsequently adopted by leading law schools, medical schools, business schools, and the schools of other professions. By the time of his retirement as dean of Harvard Law School, Langdell had instituted the future model for professional education throughout the United States.


About fifteen leagues up the coast from Boston, near the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the Merrimac River empties into the Atlantic Ocean close to the town where John Langdell was born in 1790. Descended from the Langdale family of England, John’s father died within two years, and John’s mother, Margaret, took her only child and followed the Merrimac into the interior. Thirty miles inland from its broad mouth, the river turns abruptly north near the falls where the Lowells and the Lawrences subsequently built their textile mills and family dynasties. Continuing along the Merrimac toward its source in the White Mountains, Margaret traveled with John another thirty miles, reaching the rocks and gravel bars of Manchester, New Hampshire, where John’s children would later work in the massive brick mills. Leaving the river, Margaret and John trekked west for ten miles to the small farming town of New Boston.

By the 1790s old Boston had grown wealthy and liberal, both politically and religiously, while retaining the self-righteous and superior attitude of its Puritan founders. But New Boston, with its steep hills, fierce winters, and granite ledges pushing through the thin soil, held to the severe tradition of its namesake. In that unforgiving land Margaret established their home and raised John, who eventually bought a farm and married. On 22 May 1826, Margaret’s grandson and John’s son was born and named Christopher Columbus Langdell. This child grew into the man who established the modern paradigm of professional education in the United States. This book is the story of his life.

The story is a tragedy both in form and content. The drama begins auspiciously with a promising early childhood. But by age ten the protagonist is virtually orphaned and mired in rural poverty. Through remarkable effort, discipline, and talent, he overcomes nearly insuperable barriers and triumphs professionally, first in law and then in academe. Just at that point, however, he is betrayed — actually betrays himself — and his life’s work in professional education is undermined in a way that even his many critics over the past century never appreciated, for to have done so would have called into question their own merit.

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