Distinguished Yale Professor Delivers Lecture to Upper School

Legal Scholar Akhil Amar Spoke on the Connection Between Race, Law, and the Constitution
Distinguished Yale Professor Delivers Lecture to Upper School
Credit: Charlie Perlman

Why would one of the most famous constitutional law scholars who is highly cited by the Supreme Court take the time to speak at a high school? For Akhil Amar, the answer is simple: educating young people about the Constitution is as important as influencing the Court if we want to ensure that our Republic continues to be a robust democracy.

Hackley’s dedicated alumni and administration made it possible for Akhil Amar to visit through the Jeffrey A. Libert ‘73 Endowment which provides support for projects and activities related to deepening an understanding of the intersection of race, law, and the U.S. Constitution. 

History teacher Michael Bass met Amar in 2014 during a professional development program at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Mr. Bass spent a week with Professor Amar learning about and discussing various elements of the Constitution and they immediately hit it off. 

When Mr. Bass learned about the Libert Endowment and the potential to bring in a speaker, he immediately thought of Amar. With the help of Associate Head of School Dr. Cyndy Jean and History Chair Chris Loomis, he made it work. 

Mr. Libert spent the day on campus and even sat in on Amar’s talks with the American Law and US Government classes. Libert didn’t say a word in the class but his eyes showed a true love for the Constitution that was reciprocated in those of Akhil Amar.

The Libert Endowment is part of Hackley’s overarching plan to make students informed citizens and educate students in civics. Inviting guest speakers who are immensely educated in a particular field of history and/or law allows students to get broader perspectives and understand historical concepts at a depth that sometimes the schedule doesn’t afford the History department to reach. History teachers get to watch their curriculum expand into larger school-wide discussions and help them accomplish their goal of teaching their students more about how the past impacts present decision-making in politics.    

Born to two Indian immigrant parents who lived under the United Kingdom’s rule over India, Akhil Amar was brought up valuing his freedom and American citizenship. As a young man, Amar fell in love with his country and its history and followed his passion all the way to Yale Law School. At Yale, he was a sponge absorbing all the knowledge available to him, and his aptitude for learning led him into the classrooms of Amar’s favorite professors, Edmund Morgan and John Morton Blum. Morgan and Blum convinced Amar to stay at Yale and fostered his love for teaching others. That love is what led Amar to start teaching at Yale Law School at age 26, write his first book at age 41, and speak to students, teachers, and faculty alike on the Hilltop at age 65. 

Standing at a podium in the varsity gym, Akhil Amar delivered a deeply personal talk that resonated with the entire audience. Amar’s talk included personal stories and comparisons to NFL Draft quarterbacks, which kept the audience engaged. 

In what was an wide-ranging and comprehensive speech, Amar gave three key takeaways about the Constitution that he believes many students aren’t taught. First that we need to acknowledge the large role that slavery played in the Constitution. Second that the Constitution was more democratic than many give it credit for since it was put to a popular vote of the citizens, something that didn’t happen in the founding of any other democracy to that point, not even Athens or Rome. And third, many don’t realize what a large role national security has in the Constitution since the framers were very concerned about losing their independence to a European power. 

Amar also spoke about how important it is to be an informed voter and to understand the past. Amar’s talk was engaging and his passionate, occasionally using strong language, and an unforgiving manner of speech, kept the audience interested. 

During lunch, Amar hosted a fiery roundtable discussion in the Lindsay Room for students to ask questions. It was a time for those deeply interested in history to get to express their passion with like-minded people. One topic of discussion was Amar’s strong criticisms of Thomas Jefferson and his love for Alexander Hamilton, that connects to a friendship Amar has with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton

Junior Jack Magidson attended the roundtable discussion and loved every minute of Akhil Amar’s visit. 

“Apart from the constant reminders to read his book and listen to his podcast, Akhil offered us thought-provoking ideas, mainly by challenging our understanding of the American Revolution, the Constitution, and landmark Supreme Court cases. My favorite moment from his visit was probably his suggestion to view the world skeptically,” said Jack. 

Amar’s afternoon consisted of meeting with the American Law and US Government classes to dive deeper into their knowledge of different cases and principles. In both classes, Amar talked about how he separates his personal views from those of what he thinks is constitutionally correct. 

“I have political views and I have Constitutional views and sometimes they overlap but sometimes it may be hard to prevent your political views from interfering with your Constitutional views. On three big issues, my political views are pretty different than my Constitutional views. I don’t have a gun in my home but I believe in the right to have a gun in the home. I’m pro-choice but Roe vs. Wade is all made up. I don’t like the death penalty but there are some situations where it is Constitutional, ” said Amar. 

Overall, the students of both classes got to show their knowledge of different Supreme Court cases and constitutional philosophies in discussion-based classes and get to learn even more insight into how decisions are made at the highest court in the country and different ways to think about politics. Amar frequently remarked about how intelligent and interested Hackley students are.

What was more impressive to many than the speeches and his expansive historical knowledge, however, was Akhil Amar’s interest in the lives of the students and faculty. After his speech ended, the masses poured out of the Johnson Center but a select few stayed to ask questions. The focus and patience with which Amar answered their questions were quite shocking from a scholar who has had the same discussions with Supreme Court justices. 

Similarly, before hosting his lunchtime roundtable, Amar shared a quiet moment in the Lindsay Room with Dr. Jean and asked about her journey to Hackley. Between his time with the American Law class and US Government class, Amar also stopped and chatted with sophomore Ben Iaderosa about his poster to become Vice President of Hackley Community Council which left a big impression on Ben. 

“Meeting Professor Amar was a really eye-opening experience. It was really interesting to understand the correct ways to view the Constitution and also learn about his personal views. I got a new insight on how our American History influences our country today. And overall had a great time. I reached out to him to connect with him and learn more and I am happy to say that I will be meeting with him at Yale this summer to talk about his book and other questions I might have,” said Ben.  

At the end of the day, the students left wiser and more open to how the Constitution can impact the future. Along with their broadened perspectives, all Upper School students and history faculty left with a copy of Akhil Amar’s The Words that Made Us that was made possible by the Jeffrey Libert Endowment.


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