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"How, Mr. Shesol, does one occupy a fox?"

beiser.jpg
Brown Archives/John Foraste
Ed Beiser in his office. 
I had to admit that I had never considered the question. I was aware, however, that it had been intended to make me squirm and, not incidentally, to make the hundreds of students in Salomon 101 erupt in laughter. It was also aimed at marching those of us enrolled in The Politics of the Legal System steadily toward an understanding of the issues raised by Pierson v. Post, a classic case concerning the "occupancy," or possession, of a fox that had been killed by a hunter. Ed Beiser's question succeeded in all three regards—just as he knew it would.

One of Brown's most feared and beloved professors, Ed Beiser died September 4, of Parkinson's disease. He was sixty-five. To call his teaching method Socratic was to deny its idiosyncrasies and, more importantly, the craft and consideration that had gone into developing it. Professor Beiser's approach well predated his mid-1970s enrollment at Harvard Law School, where he had gone not to teach but to earn a J.D. The Beiser method was equal parts Socrates, Maimonides, and Mort Sahl. He could be entertaining, challenging, inspiring, and riveting—all in a single lecture. He coaxed, led, and, it must be said, occasionally badgered his witnesses.

Still, Ed was not a showman, and this was not performance for performance's sake. He believed that we were there (and here) for a purpose. "We have the great intellectual luxury of picking the hard, interesting legal questions to study—of examining some of the most fundamental questions in life," he once told the BAM. His teaching method reflected his belief that life's biggest, toughest questions do not yield to cramming on the eve of exams. He required us to maintain a constant level of engagement with the material.

The Politics of the Legal System and its precursors were not pre-law classes. When Ed created Brown's interdisciplinary Center for Law and Liberal Education in 1977, he served notice that he did not hold the key to law-school admissions. As for students who might insist, regardless, on using the center as an opportunity to "play lawyer," Ed promised this: "We will beat them away with sticks." They showed up anyway, of course, and no doubt are better lawyers, judges, and policymakers as a result. Many will still tell you that one semester with Beiser taught them more of value than three years of law school.

In 1985, Professor Beiser became Brown's associate dean of medicine. He once delivered a lecture at Rhode Island Hospital with the title "Reflections of a Lawyer Who Likes Doctors." But what Ed really liked were ethical dilemmas—Hard Choices, as he called one of his most popular courses. His chief intellectual interest, I think, was neither law nor medicine but the moral and practical consequences of human action, inaction, interaction.

One of his colleagues recently told me that Ed would have made a good rabbi—and this was exactly how many of us, his student congregants, viewed him. Yes, it helped that he looked and sounded the part. But really, it was Ed's directness, his genuine concern, and his appreciation for the deep moral difficulties with which even young men and women must grapple, that made him far more than a professor to so many of us during his thirty-five years at Brown.

I remember sitting with him in his backyard on a sunny spring afternoon a week or two before my graduation. I had been to his office a couple of times that semester to revisit some question he had raised in class, but this meeting was social; I was stopping by to say thanks and good-bye. I found that he was not done with me yet. His face was impassive—the "mask" associated with Parkinson's disease—but his eyes were alert, conveying a range of reactions. And his questions, as ever, kept coming. Now they concerned my life plans and career goals, rather than some fine point of constitutional law. Seated in a lawn chair, beside a small table bearing a pitcher of iced tea, Professor Beiser administered one last exam before I went off to face whatever hard choices lay ahead.

A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, Jeff Shesol '91 is a partner at West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications strategy firm, and author of Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, which will be published by Norton in March.





Comments (9)
12/03/09
 
My freshman year and Intro to Political Science, 1972, was a revelation of clear thinking and logic. D'Toqueville, Hobbes, Rousseau. "Read the Prince and the Discourses by Wednesday and be prepared to speak to what Machiavelli meant by a people corrupt." A virtuous Prince may offer freedoms to the people, but when the Prince dies the freedoms will be lost if the people themselves are corrupt and unable to maintain free institutions. Likewise, corrupt leaders do not necessarily corrupt a people. Let us hope the people of Afghanistan are ready to maintain their institutions. 
Thank you Professor Beiser, your teaching was timeless, like the books you had us explore.
 
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12/09/09
 
while surfing the internet I found the above article. I looked up to Ed Beiser and was saddened to read of his passing. Although I had not spoken to Ed in many years, I always felt a deep and close association with him. At a time in my life when I was in dire need of direction..Ed became the older brother I had never had. He introduced me to many wonderful things including a thirst for learning,concern for others,compassion for all and accountability for one's actions. I owe a great deal to Ed for his guidance and leadership. I will always remember his kindness, sense of humor, zest for life and profound goodness.
 
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12/30/09
 
Ed Beiser was a friend and mentor. After taking Poli Sci 116, and quickly enrolled in PS117 and joined a few colleagues in the Law & Society major. After graduating a group of us would travel down from Boston to work as TA's for the course. My best memory, though, was the warm hug I received when my wife and I attended my 5th reunion with our son, then only 3 months old. Ed bought him his first Brown Bear. That was 20 years ago. I will always remember him fondly.
 
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01/03/10
 
I appreciate Stephen's recollection of books read and discussed in that Intro to Political Science course. I too think back to those days of Professor Beiser challenging us to think critically. It's also interesting (and may be a sign) that in the Fall of 2009, Brown welcomed in Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. We also read and discussed his book, No Longer at Ease in that same course. I will always remember that class and of course, Professor Beiser.
 
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01/19/10
 
Ed Beiser was my favorite teacher, my champion in fights with the Housing Administration, my shabbos co-congregant and my dear friend.  
 
The last time I visited with him in person, was parents' weekend in 2002-- he had organized a multi-generational student party at his home for those old students who were parents of his new students. He was already quite infirm and threatening retirement, but the brain worked as perfectly as it always did and he was charming and entertaining. My son had been a reluctant enrollee in Hard Choices his freshman year --our bargain was that he try the class once and if he decided to drop it, I would drop the issue. Within minutes of the end of that first class he called me-- excited with the intellectual exercise he had just been through. Though Ed was already blind and could barely move, he energized the class, and especially my son. Ari's most telling comment was that he was jealous of me to have studied with Ed in 1971 before Parkinsons robbed him of so much. 
 
The Brown community lost a giant.
 
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03/03/15
 
I took both Hard Choices and Politics of the Legal System with Dr. Beiser. They were by far the most challenging courses I took at Brown, and also the most memorable. As a Freshman, I was terrified--of him, of the legal cases we were required to read, of being called upon in class. But over time I gained confidence in my ability to see many angles of a difficult situation, to consider new possibilities, to seek justice, to embrace the gray areas in life. I remain in awe of his mastery of the subject matter, and grateful to have experienced his teaching.
 
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10/28/16
 
As a high schooler visiting colleges, I sat in on Ed Beiser's "Politics of the Legal System." It was a brief but transformative experience that influenced my choosing of Brown. Once a college student, I devoured and savored "Hard Choices" and "Politics of the Legal System." Ed became of of my mentors--and guided me toward Yale Law School because he knew it was a better fit with my politics and pedagogy than Harvard. I also attended a lovely Seder at his house and we had some lively discussions of Judaism.
 
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10/28/16
 
On a personal note, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis--a chronic neurological disease--while I was a junior at Brown. As someone who also had a largely invisible degenerative neurological disease, he showed how you could be high-functioning and not let it slow you down. He provided "reasonable accommodations" when that was a new concept under the ADA and let me take my exams orally, with him. Many thought that was the worst--a one-on-one questioning by Beiser. It was a highlight of my academic career.
 
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08/17/17
 
Greatest teacher I ever had, before or after Brown. I'm wondering if anyone either has a syllabus from Prof. Beiser's class (c. 1986) or recalls a book he used that among other things discussed the rise of non-euclidean geometries and how that influenced legal thought. It was blue, I believe, soft cover and less than an inch thick. I'd like to track that book down, and if anyone knows the title, I'd be most appreciative. If so, please send to This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it
 
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