John Jay Osborn, who wrote the novel, had a love-hate relationship with Harvard, if my reading of the novel is accurate. And it seems to have been; as he wrote over a decade ago:
When I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970, my feelings about the place were clear, sharp. It was an interesting place, an important place and a bad place. It did not have the flexibility to allow individuals to express themselves. It did not allow for reciprocity between faculty and students. In short, it really had no desire to be loved, or even to be respected. The big dark institution, symbolized for me by Langdell Hall, only wanted to be feared. It was very successful in inspiring fear and despair, both in the classroom and in the larger world.However, as his creator notes, that didn't remain entirely consistent:
My first novel, "The Paper Chase," portrayed this vision of the institution. Its central character, Professor Kingsfield, on the last day of class, is told by Hart, the student hero, that Kingsfield's contracts class meant something to Hart, that Kingsfield was very important to him. Finally, the corners of the professor's lips turn up in a slight smile. "What was your name?" Kingsfield asks, stepping past Hart. You will never be anything more than a number on a seating chart, Kingsfield is saying; despite all your efforts, you mean nothing to me, or to Harvard Law School.
Imperceptibly, over the years, Kingsfield changed. In the six years that "The Paper Chase" was on television--first on CBS, then on PBS, later on Showtime--he grew more complicated. I remember writing the episode "Scavenger Hunt." It begins with Kingsfield going to incredible lengths to track down the most obscure citations available within the entire university. He will then send his students out on a gigantic scavenger hunt to find these citations, a hunt that has no rules, pitting them against each other in a zero-sum game, in which the person who finds the citations gets an A, and everyone else flunks. (Or does he really have something else on his mind, something more "educational"?) We begin with Kingsfield and his loyal secretary, Mrs. Nottingham, down in a subbasement, looking over uncataloged items by candlelight, while a rotting sewer line leaks on their heads.In the above video, he says that the TV series is "a watered down version"--that Kingsfield shows that he cares to us the viewer, if not the students. Interestingly, Osborn claims that there was no one person on whom Kingsfield was based. When I heard John Houseman speak at Fordham,he asserted (as he had elsewhere) that Kingsfield was based on Edward "Bull" Warren, about whom Houseman told several stories, including one in which Warren saw a woman seated in class, wearing trousers, and STARED at her. And STARED at her until, uncomfortable at the glare, she crossed her legs. Warren, so Houseman told us, then intoned, "Now that the gates of Hell are closed--"
What law professor is going to go to those lengths? Well, in fact, none. So, if Kingsfield does this, what does it say about him? It says that he cares. It may not be easy to see that, and he would never admit it, but in some fundamental way, he really cares about teaching, and by implication he also cares for his students.
Warren, clearly, was not a particularly lovable man, but was not always such a stickler for propriety--Houseman also described him as, late one evening, urinating on Boston Common, "though whether out of necessity or principal remains unknown," he added.