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Expanding Curriculum: Part 1

Expanding Curriculum: Part 1

The Columbia Law School course bulletin of 1861-62 shows 12 course offerings. Today, the Law School offers more than 200.  The exponential expansion of offerings should come as no surprise. In nearly every way, the world of the early 21st century is a more complex place than it was in 1858, the year the Law School was founded. Laws governing business transactions, criminal conduct, accidents, and international relations - not to mention a huge body of administrative law that would have been unimaginable to ante bellum society - have dramatically increased. What follows is a survey of how the Law School's curriculum grew, from the days when Professor James Kent (1763-1847) taught Roman law and logic to the present day, when students can take courses such as Professor Lance Liebman's Telecommunications, Professor Susan Sturm's Theory and Practice of Workplace Equity, or Professor Jane Spinak's Child Advocacy Clinic.


James Kent

Seeds planted

Columbia Law School's curricular seeds were planted by Kent, appointed the first professor of law at Columbia College in 1794. Kent's teaching philosophy diverged from the traditions of Oxford Professor William Blackstone, who viewed law study largely as a way to prepare gentlemen for society. Every English gentleman should be acquainted with the basics of law, Blackstone believed.

Living in a new democracy that needed to quickly find its way in the world, Kent believed young men should do more than dabble in the law.

"Kent was not only going to make gentlemen into lawyers, but lawyers into gentlemen by giving them technical professional training in the atmosphere of the liberal arts," wrote Professor Julius Goebel, Jr. '23, in his history of Columbia Law School. Kent prescribed a vigorous course of study that included, among other topics, logic, moral philosophy, political history, the law of nations, and public speaking.

Kent held the chair in law for only three years, until other obligations took him away from teaching. The chair remained vacant until 1823 when Kent, having retired from his position as chancellor of the state of New York, returned to Columbia. The subsequent set of lectures he delivered formed the Commentaries on American Law, one of the most important law books of the 19th century. The comprehensive commentaries covered the law of nations, the government and constitutional jurisprudence of the United States, municipal law, law concerning the rights of persons, personal property, and real property.

When Kent died in 1847, the law professorship was filled by William Betts, a graduate and trustee of Columbia College, whose busy law practice took precedence over his scheduled delivery of law lectures. It was during this time that the College trustees were exploring the idea of establishing a school of law, a plan realized in 1858, when Columbia created the 18th law school in the United States. Its first professor and dean (or warden, as the position was then called) was Theodore W. Dwight.


Theodore W. Dwight

During this era, the vast majority of men received their legal training through the apprenticeship system. Kent, for example, read law with Egbert Benson, a leading attorney in Dutchess County. As in other fields, apprentices learned by following procedures and mastering the skills of experienced lawyers, with much time de-voted to copying legal documents. Warden Dwight considered it an inferior way of learning law because it "filled a young man's mind with a jumble of rules and facts." The superior method, he believed, was a systematic, well-rounded, two-year course of formal study. 

"Principles before practice" was his motto.

To get his school up and running, Dwight hired Professors John Ordronaux (medical jurisprudence), Francis Lieber (political philosophy), and Charles Nairne (ethics). He also brought in lecturers from Columbia College, as well as outside practitioners. Among the courses offered in the curriculum guide of 1861-62 were Constitutional and Parliamentary Law, Punishment, Municipal Law, and Maritime Law. Records indicate that the curriculum did not change much during the next three decades, by which time university officials were discussing whether to add a third year of study.


Francis Lieber

The debate about a third year had been brewing for more than a decade. Dwight opposed the additional year because he feared that students - anxious to enter practice - would consider it superfluous. By 1888-89, however, Dwight found himself pitted against both the faculty and University trustees who favored the plan, and he reluctantly consented to it.

A third year not only gave faculty the opportunity to teach current classes in more depth, but allowed the creation of new courses. The first-year classes, all required, were Jurisprudence, Contracts, Real and Personal Property, Domestic Relations and the Law of Persons, Torts, Common Law Pleading and Procedure, and Criminal Law. Students were free to choose whatever classes they desired for their second and third years. Some of the new ones included Insurance, Negotiable Paper, Comparative Constitutional Law, Public International Law, Corporations, and Conflicts of Private Law. The subject matter of these classes paralleled and related to the growing economic, industrial, and political power of the United States in the post-Civil War years. Also significant was the appointment in 1891 of John Bassett Moore to the first full professorship devoted to international law.

Dwight retired in 1891, which also roughly marked the beginning of a new way of teaching law. Relegated to posterity was the "Dwight method," which imparted legal knowledge via textbooks and treatises; in its place came the "case method," designed to train students to reason deductively by deriving legal principles through close reading of decisions of cases. The switch to the case method at Columbia did not occur overnight. Faculty, as well as students, wrangled among themselves about which method was superior, but case books and the case method were gradually adopted into most courses.