Stephen Cox '93
Position: Associate at Robinson Bradshaw
Thesis Title: “Ecclesiastical Empowerment and Church-Crown Conflict in Henry III’s England.”
I arrived at Harvard in 1989, knowing that I wanted to be a History major (or “concentrator,” as I soon learned to call it), but a little bewildered by all the possibilities. I had really enjoyed my European History course at my rural South Carolina high school, but that class started at the Renaissance (the State of South Carolina not seeing much instructional value in Europe before then). It wasn’t until I took a Core Curriculum class on the architecture of medieval castles my first semester at Harvard that I realized there was this whole complex world of the Middle Ages that was completely unfamiliar to me. A class the next semester on the medieval papacy sealed it for me. I would major (or “concentrate”) in medieval history—a choice that energized me, bemused my roommates, and baffled my parents.
The next three years gave me exactly the liberal arts experience that I had hoped for when I applied to Harvard. Thomas Bisson’s classes on the history of medieval Europe and France, James Hankins’ course on the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, and Michael McCormick’s interdisciplinary study of Europe in Late Antiquity—all taught by leading scholars in their fields—were riveting and rich. (And medieval history being one of the College’s best kept secrets, the classes offered student-teacher ratios that were lower than those of almost any other courses being offered in Harvard Yard!) The tutorials were another kind of learning experience altogether—examining important questions of historiography and the philosophy of history (“Why does the history of long ago matter to me today?”) in small discussion groups. The whole course of study culminated in a senior thesis—for me, an analysis of thirteenth- century ecclesiastical grievances submitted to the English Crown—that still ranks as one of the most challenging and invigorating intellectual experiences of my life.
I left the formal study of history in 1993, when I graduated from the College. But throughout law school, and during my career as a lawyer, I have continued to rely on the lessons I learned in the Harvard history department. Digesting 100 pages of case materials for my first-year law classes was a snap compared to the several volumes I had to read each week for my senior thesis tutorial. Analyzing an opponent’s legal brief—or a court’s opinion—calls on the same close reading skills that I used every day as a history undergraduate. My history professors were the ones who challenged me to develop a clear and fluent writing style, which continues to be an essential part of my professional life. And thanks to my medieval history concentration, I was among the few members of my law school class who could translate all those Latin aphorisms in old court cases (albeit with a Southern accent), and probably the only person in my Carolina town to know (or care about) the last pope before Benedict XVI to resign voluntarily. (It was Celestine V, in 1294, unless you count the forced resignation of the Schismatic Gregory XII, in 1415, but I digress.)
As I now prepare my children to consider their own college choices, I am grateful that I can point them to my undergraduate experience as an example of the virtues of a liberal arts education. For me, studying history at Harvard was not only the gateway to a rewarding professional life. It was, more importantly, an invaluable foundation for lifelong learning.