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Fall 2020 Reading Group

Monuments and Memorialization

Prerequisites: None

Exam Type:No Exam

Although there is no examination or lengthy paper required, I do ask each student to prepare one response paper, of approximately 750 words, regarding the readings assigned that particular week. A central purpose of the paper(s) is to set the agenda for the class discussion, which is certainly the most important aspect of the course.

A constant of all political systems, going back to ancient times, is that ruling elites try to shape public space in order to reinforce their own prestige and legitimacy as governors. It is, therefore, also a constant that “regime change” can in part be measured by the tendency to reshape public space, including the destruction of existing monuments and their replacement by a new group of purported “heroes.” Think in this context only of the destruction of the statue of King George III in New York by the “patriots” leading the American secession from the British Empire. (The lead in the statue was apparently melted down to provide bullets to use against the British soldiers and, presumably, some of their Loyalist supporters.) The issue of public memorialization has become especially volatile in recent years with regard to monuments (or buildings) honoring leaders of the Confederate States of America in their own attempt to secede from the United States and, importantly, to maintain the institution of chattel slavery. But the controversies have certainly gone beyond those examples. Consider that “Boalt Hall” is no longer the name of the locale of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law because it was discovered (or remembered) that the eponymous John Robert Boalt was rabidly anti-Chinese and led the movement to bar Chinese immigration to the United States. Or think of the controversies surrounding the continued naming of buildings after the Sackler family donors. Finally, if time permits, there might be some consideration as well of “historical preservation” of architectural styles or height limits and the tension generated with urban development (and, possibly, provisions of new housing). Readings will include, almost certainly, two books, David Reiff’s In Praise of Forgetting and my own book Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (2d ed. 2018), together with a variety of materials drawn from public bodies, including New York City and a number of universities, both public and private, that have wrestled with aspects of these controversies. At least one of the six classes will be devoted to legal materials involving the ability to remove statues and the assignment of meaning to specific statues, such as, for example, the 42-foot cross in Maryland that was challenged as an “establishment” of Christianity. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4, that that was not the case, and we will read some of the opinions. As always, the only real demand is reading the materials and participating in class discussion, though each student will be asked/required to write a single “response paper” addressing the readings for a given week and suggesting questions that would merit general discussion. Finally, given the literally world-wide existence of controversies sparked by memorials and memorialization, students in all HLS programs are welcome. I have found in the past that the discussions have very much been aided by the perspectives of students from South Africa, Canada, Lithuania, Russia, and other various countries of origin.

Note: This reading group will be held on the following dates: 9/9, 9/23, 10/7, 10/21, 10/28, 11/11


Reiff, David. In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (Yale University Press) 

Levinson, Sanford. Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (Duke University Press, 2d ed., 2018). (The Press is also selling it at a 40% discount at their web site with code STONE40.)