Isidore Starr and the Law Studies Movement

Washington Talking Book & Braille Library Centenarian


"I regard history as a birth certificate for each individual because the history of each of us is…the history of this country."
- Isidore Starr

With a title like “Father of Law Related Education,” you might expect Isidore Starr to be intimidating, a lofty academic talking over your head in jargon reserved for courtrooms and textbooks. Once you’ve met the man, however, you realize you couldn’t be more wrong. True, Isidore pioneered the field of law related education in grade school and high school classrooms. Also true, he did so while maintaining a sense of humor and a genuine respect and admiration for his students.

On an unseasonably warm September day in 2012 I arrive at the North Seattle retirement community that Isidore calls home. I pull into the parking lot a bit before schedule, hoping to collect my thoughts and give myself enough time to appear at ease as I head into my inaugural excursion as an oral historian in training. Stepping out of my car, I notice an elderly gentleman to my left. Though moving slowly, there is what can only be described as a spring in his step. A fair-weather uniform of broad straw hat, white linen pants, and a polo shirt lend him an air of debonair grace. Though I’ve only seen a few pictures of the man, I know this has to be Isidore. “Anna?” he asks, with a smile.

If you were to ask Isidore how to prepare for a law school education, he’d give you a simple answer, and the same advice he received from his college professor some 80 years ago: read Chaucer and Shakespeare. “If you’re going to practice the law, you must understand human nature. You read those two authors and you’ll learn what human nature is really like,” his professor explained. This statement is so much what Starr stands for. To him, the law is not stored away in volumes, shelved in libraries, and forgotten about. It isn’t a subject to be understood and discussed only by a select few in an elitist club of intellectuals. Rather, the law is a living, breathing, imperfect and constantly changing organism. “From the moment you get up in the morning until the moment you go to sleep at night, the law is with you,” Isidore explains. Having seen the legal system at work for the past 100 years, through the Great Depression, leading into WWII and the Red Scare, igniting violence and dissent in the Civil Rights Era, and arriving at Middle Eastern conflict and US debt disasters, to say Isidore is familiar with the law would be an understatement.

Isidore leads me through the lobby and out onto the back patio, where, he tells me, he likes to sit when the sun comes out. We choose a table and settle down when someone stops by to say hello. This is the first of many greetings that take place during our two interviews. Nobody can get enough of Isidore, and it’s easy to see why: he has an infectious personality and a way of really listening to people, which is probably what’s made him such a spectacular educator. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

At Home in the Burroughs

Isidore Starr was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 24, 1911. His parents, Yetta and Nathan Starr, had fled Russia to escape the tyranny of the Czar. America was a land of opportunity and freedom, and represented a new beginning for the Starrs, and, in turn, Isidore has profound respect for this country. “I’m very proud to have been born in America, and especially proud of the opportunities America offered us,” Isidore explains. “It offered my father an opportunity to be a skilled carpenter [and] it offered my mother an opportunity to raise three children in a loving atmosphere.” The Starrs and their three children, Isidore, Belle, and Vivian, lived in a ghetto on Rockaway Avenue in a railroad apartment, in which a narrow hallway running the length of the building connected the rooms. Though surrounded by other Jewish families, many of whom were probably also recent immigrants, the transition for Yetta and Nathan cannot have been easy. As their children grew up in New York, they were discovering it for the first time as well. Isidore remembers speaking Yiddish until he started kindergarten, at which time he slowly picked up English words and soon became fluent. His parents began to speak English as well. His father, whose carpenter duties often took him across the country building cigar stores, was always fluent in what Isidore terms “cigar store English,” though other than that, he was a quiet man.

The Starrs were a loving and close-knit family. Isidore remembers his mother sending him to meet his father at the subway station when he returned from working out of town. “She would ask me to wait for him at the entrance so I could help him with his tool baggage. And of course it was incredibly heavy so he would carry it and I would have my hand on his hand. I was helping him.” He recalls being rocked by his mother as she sang to him in her native Russian tongue. As time passed, the Starr’s family ties did not weaken. When Isidore moved from New York to Arizona in 1975, his sisters were heartbroken. “They cried terribly and I assured [them] that I would call them at least once a week and eventually we would see each other again,” Isidore explains. He kept true to his promise, checking in with Belle and Vivian weekly. Isidore credits his happy marriage and wonderful relationship he has with his son to the positive family experience he’s had as a Starr. “My wife and I mirrored what our parents did,” he explains. “We raised a son who married a woman and they’ve been married ever since. They raised three children. This atmosphere of love and affection and respect for each other permeated our lives, and the precedent was my father and mother.” This love for his family has radiated outward, as seen in Isidore’s insatiable desire in establishing connections with other people. Pouring over the list of books he’s written, the journals he’s contributed to, and the myriad lectures and conferences he’s been a part of, it becomes apparent that his goal has been to influence minds and change the course of learning. It’s clear this man has touched many. A quick tour of his apartment reveals plaques, awards, and photos depicting a laughing, smiling, Isidore surrounded by friends and admirers.

An Appetite for Education

A dedicated student ravenous for information and conversation, Isidore recalls his school days fondly. He remembers his high school English teacher, Ms. Harrington, with a distinct fondness. “I had her in the senior year, and she taught me so much about the English language, about how to express myself. I treasure her memory.” Ms. Harrington, “an older woman with frizzled hair,” was not a particularly popular instructor, but Isidore was crazy about her. He remembers reading William James’ essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which discusses the role emotions play in the forming of opinions. Ms. Harrington’s dedication to introducing advanced texts and discussion topics to a class of 16-year-olds surely influenced Isidore’s idea of what it means to be an effective instructor. Ms. Harrington would be proud that Isidore continues to engage in many literary activities at his current residence: a play reading group (in which, while he could still read, he always played the leading male role) and a book club.

In 1928 life was about to become much more challenging. After graduating from high school, Isidore headed to the City College of New York. “I took a course in Economics in 1929,” Isidore explains. “The professor said to us, ‘I’m giving you a sum of money, I want you to invest it in the stock market and we’ll follow it every week and everyone’s gonna report on how you’ve done.’ So we invested in the September. In October we were all broke, and that was the great crash.” The Depression didn’t deter Isidore, who kept to his scholarly duties while relegated to a tight budget. “We got intimate with each other, the Depression and I,” he recalls. “I remember my mother gave me 50 cents to go to college, 5 cents for the subway each way and 5 cents to buy an apple.” In 1932, when graduation rolled around, Isidore had plans to apply to law school. A law degree was the best guarantee for employment in such economically unstable times. After being at odds for a year, he headed to St. John’s University School of Law.

“At St. John’s, it was so Jewish it was called St. Jacob’s,” Isidore laughs. Surrounded by other hopeful students (a large majority of which were, apparently, Jewish), Isidore embarked on what would become a decades-long on-again off-again foray into higher education. He still remembers his first day of law school and the terror he felt as a new student. Selected to present the case being discussed, Isidore stood up in front of 200 students and tried his best. His best wasn’t good enough, and the professor pestered him with questions and clarifications, following suit with a number of other students. After the class, the professor approached Isidore. “I hope you didn’t mind what I did to you,” he said. “I’ll do it to all of you because I want to toughen you up. I’m battering you and making you sore because I want you to go into a courtroom with a lot of confidence.” “He turned out to be my favorite professor,” Isidore smiles.

From Student to Teacher

In 1934, in his second year at St. John’s, Isidore began teaching Civics at Brooklyn Technical High School. At 23 years old, he wasn’t much older than the 6,000 rambunctious teenage boys he had as students. “They were very much interested in science and math and had very little interest in history and English,” Isidore explains. “The problem was to get these students interested in history, to explain to them that this is a part of the life they are leading and it’s a part of the nation in which they are living.” As soon as he started teaching, Isidore realized that the current curriculum was to blame for the students’ lack of interest. His lesson plans were comprised of rote memorization exercises requiring students to regurgitate information. “It was deadly!” Isidore remembers. “I had been trained in the philosophy of John Dewey, which meant including students in the learning process, in other words, learning consisted of teacher and student learning together, not the teacher questioning the student.” Isidore had to find a way to connect with his students on a personal level and present the information to them in an interesting, relevant way. “It just happened that the day before I was supposed to teach the police department with all the divisions, that we were studying the Third Degree in law school,” he explains. The Third Degree, a method of using torture to illicit information from prisoners, sparked a heated intellectual conversation in Isidore’s classroom at St. John’s, just the sort of conversation his Brookyln Tech students needed to jumpstart their interest in the workings of the law.

Isidore started his next class with a question. Instead of listing the bureaus of the police department as he had been doing before, he presented the concept of the Third Degree to his students, and then asked them what they thought. “The classroom atmosphere changed,” Isidore says. “We were beginning to discuss moral reasoning, what’s right and what’s wrong in dealing with situations.” After receiving such a positive response to his first law-focused lesson, Isidore began to introduce the law into lessons whenever possible. Since he was spending his evenings as a student himself, he had no shortage of interesting and relevant material to use in his own classroom. His students were especially fond of his use of the case study method, which allowed them to investigate specifics of individual cases, including the plaintiff’s argument, defendant’s argument, and decision, while participating actively by presenting information to the class in the form of a mock trial. And so began the field of Law Related Education, originally termed “Law Studies” by Isidore, which he defines as “using the law in elementary and secondary schools to discuss moral issues of our time.” Over the years, Isidore, dubbed by his many admirers as “The Father of Law Related Education,” developed his teaching program to encompass a Bill of Rights education course in conjunction with the Civil Liberties Education Foundation and the National Council of the Social Studies, which he served on in 1951.

“I’m gonna marry that hat”

In the midst of law school classes and Brooklyn Tech teaching responsibilities, with the thought of his future in the back of his mind, a 24-year-old Isidore met the woman he would marry. The sister of one of his friends Bo Rueben, Kay had always been on Isidore’s periphery, but he had never spent much time with her. “She was always in and out, I never really saw much of her, kind of a will of a wisp,” he explains. All this changed, thanks to a housewarming party for a newly married Bo, some big band music, and a hat. “I was at the party when in walks this woman and she has this beautiful hat,” Isidore recalls. “It was a broad-brimmed hat, gray I think, and it was a shaped hat [with] a blue ribbon at the base of it. I was fascinated by that hat. And I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna marry that hat.’” Of course, the woman under the hat was Kay, and, of course, she and Isidore danced all afternoon. He asked her out the next week. And so began a loving and dedicated relationship. “We went to the theater, the ballet, opera, sports. We loved everything, we had no differences as to our likes and dislikes.” Isidore talks about Kay with love struck awe; it’s clear that his love for her only grew over the years they spent together.

Luckily, Kay was a patient woman and knew from the start that education and schooling were always going to occupy a part of Isidore’s heart. The two courted for five years, during which time Isidore graduated and started a new course of study, this time pursuing a Master’s degree in History at Columbia University. They were married in 1940, and soon after Isidore enrolled at the Brooklyn Law School of St. Lawrence University. “I would have preferred to stay away because I was just married and who wants to spend that valuable time at law school,” he says, but he desperately wanted to learn about the New Deal law, which hadn’t been touched on in his previous St. John’s education. Two years later and nearing graduation, Kay and Isidore were ready to settle down and start a family. World War Two had other plans in mind.

WWII: New Orleans, Overseas, and Back Again

In 1942 Isidore was drafted and sent to Camp Plauche in New Orleans. Kay left her job at Macy’s to join him in Louisiana, where she found a position at the Touro Infirmary and, as Isidore puts it, “brought northern efficiency to southern lassitude.” The two spent time together when Isidore could get away from his army duties, eating and dancing their way through New Orleans. Isidore began his service by teaching in the Army Administration school, during which time he taught himself the basic curriculum, integrated his classroom, and found an Article of War allowing for soldiers infected with venereal disease to be paid while being treated. “The army took very good care of me,” Isidore remembers. “I was Private First Class within a week, I think I was Corporal within a month …I couldn’t change my stripes fast enough!” Thanks to the efforts of an insistent Colonel, Isidore became an Information Education Officer shortly before he was shipped to the Philippines. In late September 1945, he boarded a ship, unaware of where he was headed. Though the war had technically ended, the Japanese submarines refused to surrender because they did not believe that Emperor Hirohitu had backed down. Always one to find the silver lining, Isidore took it upon himself to organize language lessons for his shipmates. “In the morning on deck we would teach them Japanese, all oral instruction, memorization of about 200 phrases if possible. In the afternoon it would be Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines,” Isidore says. “That was our favorite activity.”

In August 1946 Isidore was sent home. He recalls at least 14 days of sea travel and then six more on a train to get back to New York City where Kay had settled in an apartment across the street from his family. Upon his return, life didn’t slow down. Isidore found himself reunited with his family, which had grown to include his son, Larry. “I remember getting home and taking two steps at a time to get to my apartment,” he says. “I run upstairs, open the door, and say, ‘Kay, I’m home!’ And she’s holding our son in her arms.” Kay was exhausted. Larry was colicky as a baby, and she had been raising him on her own while Isidore had been gone. On top of this, she had developed postpartum depression, which she continued to struggle with for the next two years. With virtually no time to readjust or settle in, Isidore was offered his old job at Brooklyn Technical High School, and though he hated to leave Kay and Larry alone, he accepted the position at his wife’s urging.

The Red Scare: Teaching Under the Microscope

Isidore was thrilled to be back at Brooklyn Tech. Along with his teaching duties, the principal assigned him as head of the Service Squad, a group of 600 boys in charge of opening and closing the school and keeping order during lunch. Though he had been introducing law into his Civics and History classes long before he was drafted, Isidore’s classroom techniques began to be noticed more after his return, in part due to the Red Scare of the 1950s. Isidore describes the effect of McCarthy’s hypervigilance as a “pall of orthodoxy descended on the education system.” Teachers were in constant fear of losing their jobs. “You didn’t have to be a communist, all you had to do was be accused of communism,” he explains. With his unconventional teaching styles, it didn’t take long for Isidore to be targeted. In 1951 he was called down to the principal’s office and accused of teaching, “the Declaration of Independence [is] a collection of glittering generalities.” To which Isidore responded, “What’s wrong with that?” He explained that in teaching the Declaration, he presented his class with a variety of definitions: 1) A collection of glittering generalities (which was taken directly from Rise of American Civilization, a popular text book at the time), 2) the birth certificate of the American nation, or 3) a war song. In conclusion, he would ask his students if they had a better definition. Isidore wasn’t penalized for the accusation (he was close friends with the principal), but the experience did lead him to write an article detailing the struggle teachers were facing. The article, titled “Teaching Controversial Issues Through Supreme Court Decisions” and published in the journal Social Education, suggested “that if a Supreme Court can handle controversial issues in an intelligent and civil way, why shouldn’t we be able to do this in classes?” The title, which the editor of Social Education identified as “too controversial,” was changed to “Recent Supreme Court Decisions.” From 1951 to 1963, Isidore wrote a series of articles for Social Education, which were later compiled and published in a book, The Supreme Court and Contemporary Issues.

Writing articles became Isidore’s response to many roadblocks he faced as an educator. After returning from the army, he was urged to take the Chairman’s Exam by some of his colleagues. The test was comprised of four parts, one of which was a teaching exam. Isidore passed all but the teaching portion, because he was not well-versed in World History, the subject he was assigned, and he did not adhere to the required teaching model. “They judged you at that time by what they called the Developmental Lesson,” Isidore explains. “You had to adjust your teaching to individual differences in your class. If you use a format and they also want you to conform to individual differences, how do you do that?” The article that rose from the ashes of Isidore’s failure was “The Basic Pedagogic Myth,” in which he disputed the existence of one method of teaching that applies to all students and all professors. “I was assailed by everyone, assistant chairmen [and] principals wrote articles in response to my article. They all thought it was terrible to criticize the golden idea of the Developmental Lesson. But I received one good letter,” Isidore smiles. “It had four lines in it, and I’ve never forgotten it. ‘Isidore, God bless you.’ And that was the Associate Superintendent of Schools.” In 1961, when Queen’s College was looking for a dynamic teacher to step in for a year and help with their teacher education program, it didn’t take long for the Associate Superintendent to come up with a recommendation. Once the Queen’s staff met Isidore, they didn’t want to give him up, and so he continued teaching at Queen’s College until retiring in 1975. “Walking to work everyday except in an ice storm was heavenly, and they were excellent students there, I could have stayed forever,” he remembers. During this time Isidore had a front row seat to the Civil Rights Movement. Though he wasn’t directly involved in any campus or personal protests or campaigns, many Queen’s students and faculty members made their way to Mississippi each summer to teach the African American students who were banned from white classrooms.

When at home, Isidore appreciated the love and support of Kay and Larry. “I wish society would mirror the way my family felt about each other,” Isidore smiles. From the time he was a baby, Larry was fascinated by music. “As he grew older he began to crawl around,” Isidore remembers. “My wife would be in the kitchen and would follow him around the house, couldn’t do very much. So she decided to put a record on, and he crawled over to the record and sat there listening.” When Larry was a bit older, Isidore and Kay, who both played the violin, attempted to convince him to do the same so they could have a family band. He wasn’t interested. At the age of 10, he decided to start playing piano, and hasn’t stopped since. Larry is now a music professor at the University of Washington. Isidore beams when he talks about Larry. He has enjoyed watching his son grow into a loving father and husband.

Saying Goodbye

By the time Isidore agreed to retire, Kay was ready to leave New York. The city had become more dangerous and crime rates were rising. When Isidore was held up at gunpoint on his morning walk to the Queen’s College campus, Kay put her foot down. The two moved to Arizona in 1975, and even now Isidore gets a wistful look in his eyes when he describes their life in the desert, and the wonderful “out of door living” they did there. Of course retirement for Isidore didn’t mean that he stopped working, far from it. He remembers telling Kay, “When I retire, it means I’m assuming another job.” For the next 13 summers he taught law courses and led seminars in various locations, including Texas and Hawaii, and made many close friends. When some years later Kay developed dementia, the two moved to Seattle to be closer to Larry and his family. The entire time she was in the nursing home, Isidore spent six hours a day with her. When, in 2008, Kay died as a result of an accident on the part of the nursing home staff, Isidore was ready to defend her case. “I wanted very much to go to trial, because I wanted to address the jury to get some publicity for people who are old,” he explains. “I was told by every lawyer I knew that suing was a hopeless task, that a 97-year-old person wasn’t worth anything. I was going to prove that a 97-year-old person was worth as much as a young person.” The case ended in mediation and never went to trial, and though Isidore regrets to this day that he didn’t get the chance to speak on his wife’s behalf, he’s kept going. “When you’re confronted by challenges, you have three choices: you can either overcome the challenge and go onto the next phase, you can meet the challenge and remain stationary, or you can let the challenge overcome you and forget about life,” he explains. Isidore has certainly gone on to the next phase. Just last year he celebrated his 100th birthday. The Seattle University School of Law held a conference in his honor, inviting more than 80 educators, speakers, and politicians involved in the creation and proliferation of the law-studies movement.

Isidore has invited me to stay for dinner, so when we finish our interview we head upstairs to the dining room. We’re seated at his favorite table, the one with a view of the Cascade Mountains, and it’s a beautiful day to admire them: orangey afternoon sun and not a cloud in sight. Sitting across from him, I realize this man is the “father of law related education” not only because he pioneered a powerful and inventive teaching method, but also because he has shared it with others as if they were his own family, connected with students as if they were his children. Isidore isn’t just a law educator, first and foremost he’s a professor of humanity, a teacher of character. Starting from the ground up, in middle school and high school classrooms, Isidore Starr ignited generations of young minds. Minds that learned to assess arguments and develop opinions with great care and that grew stronger with the affirmation that the world would benefit from their strength and tenacity. When asked for his predictions for the future, Isidore is realistic and acknowledges the struggles ahead. But he’s got a secret weapon: education. “Education to me is a slow, laborious process, which in a sense holds the key to the future. People have to be educated that humanity is a many-splendored thing, many colors and many views, many opinions, many ideas,” Isidore explains. “We have to be tolerant of each other, accept each other, weigh each other’s arguments, and argue without killing each other or without destroying each other,” he concludes. No, this will not be easy, but as Isidore’s shown us, it’s also not impossible.

Anna Samuels, The Legacy Project, 2012

View Isidore Starr’s oral history transcript