David Currie, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor in the Law SchoolBy Rob McManamy
In one role or another, David Currie has been on a stage since the age of 5. And now that he has just passed his 70th birthday, the beloved scholar, teacher, mentor, colleague and actor is happy to be able to bow out at the top of his craft.
“It’s much better to go out while they still want you to teach than to hang on too long,” says Currie, who formally retired Friday, March 31, as the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School. “I’m ready to hang up my spikes.”
A faculty member since 1962, the renowned constitutional law expert, historian and author will continue to teach his favorite seminar next winter on the development of constitutional law throughout U.S. history. “If I’m excited by what I’m teaching, it helps the students to be excited, too,” he explains.
And his students overwhelmingly agree. For the fourth time in the last 14 years, Currie has won the Graduating Students’ Award for Teaching Excellence. An unprecedented feat, this latest honor breaks a tie with last year’s winner, David Strauss, who has won the award three times.
Knowing that this is the last such award he can ever win, Currie concedes that the moment is bittersweet. After all, for more than 40 years, he has annually developed a deep bond with his students, just as he has connected with those who have watched him on the stage. Currie has remained very active locally in acting, singing and even directing in an amateur theater company that produces Gilbert & Sullivan musicals.
“Each class of students is different, just as every audience is different in a theater,” he says. “My goal as a teacher is the same as an actor: to find what will work with each audience to keep it engaged.”
Unlike the austere carriage of actor John Houseman’s aloof Harvard Law professor in the film The Paper Chase, Currie (a 1960 Harvard Law graduate) has never used fear as a motivator. “I do use the Socratic method, so I’m always asking questions,” he explains. “But I try to make it fun. So, some in the past have described me as ‘probing but gentle,’ which is a description I kind of like.”
Currie notes that his students can always rely on his accessibility. “Sometimes, things will just go too fast in class, or jump from subject to subject too quickly. So, when they ask for help, I’m always happy to give them guidance.”
In fact, to help keep all of his students on the same page, Currie starts every class by summing up the major points discussed in the previous class meeting. It is a practice his students appreciate, he says.
Similarly, since 9/11, there has been a discernible increase in student appreciation for the relevance of the subjects he teaches: Federal Jurisdiction; Separation of Powers; Conflict of Laws; and The Constitution in Congress. “I try not to focus on [headlines] so much, but the last few years, my students have been extremely engaged by current events, and I think that’s a good thing.”
A 1957 graduate of the College, Currie started his legal career after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1960 and becoming clerk to Judge Henry Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. After a year in that post, he clerked another year for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. In 1962, he became an Assistant Professor in the Law School and attained tenure in 1965. Currie then served as the Harry N. Wyatt Professor of Law from 1977 to 1991, when he was named to the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service professorship.
Over the years, he also has taught at Stanford University and the University of Michigan, and abroad at Frankfurt, Hanover, Heidelberg and Tčbingen universities in Germany, and at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.
In addition to his historical and comparative work on the Constitution, Currie has written three major casebooks: Cases and Materials on Federal Courts, Cases and Materials on Pollution, and Cases and Materials on Conflict of Laws.
Last June, Currie delivered the farewell speech to the Law School’s Class of 2005. His words then serve as a fitting coda to his 44 years of service to the University.
“So I leave you with three lessons: The law is an endlessly challenging and demanding intellectual discipline; the law is a worthy and noble profession; the law is not just what some unelected judge had for breakfast, but a real constraint on arbitrary action, the mainstay of our civil rights and liberties.
“Go ye then into the world; employ your hard-earned skills; apply them to make the world a better place; and remember fondly your days at the Law School.”