Legal History at Columbia Law School - Part 5

The relevance of history to other legal curricula

In addition to its legal historians, the Law School also is home to faculty who have substantial knowledge in the field and integrate it into their teaching.

"It's an intellectual interest that has a lot of devotees," explains Henry Monaghan, the Harlan Fiske Stone Professor of Constitutional Law. "To understand the current status of doctrine, you have to know what forks in the road were taken to get there. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘A page of history is worth a volume of logic.'"

Professor Vincent Blasi, who specializes in the history of ideas and free speech, cites as one of his proudest achievements the course he developed at Columbia called Ideas of the First Amendment. In it, he assigns works by John Milton, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill, along with opinions by Learned Hand and Louis Brandeis. He devotes a week of critical study to each of these key thinkers.

"I used to teach a fairly traditional course with a law school casebook. It didn't give students an appreciation for where our ideas about the First Amendment come from," explains Prof. Blasi, the Corliss Lamont Professor of Civil Liberties.

Gerald Neuman, the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Federal Jurisprudence, also integrates history into his courses on the U.S. Constitution and immigration law, the latter of which has its roots in the late 19th century.

"The origins of federal immigration law are very relevant to what the law is today, even though the statutes have changed enormously," he adds.

Professor Katherine Franke, whose writing focuses on the intersection of critical race and post modern theory, is now undertaking a book-length project on U.S. Reconstruction as a form of domestic colonialism. She is interested in showing how rights for African-Americans in the immediate post-Civil War period enabled marvelous new forms of freedom for the freed men and women, while at the same time creating new opportunities to discipline and punish them. She has taught a legal history seminar, and relies heavily on the history of civil rights movements in her Federal Civil Rights class.

An antidote to cynicism

In an age where the eyes of the masses seem glued to the future, the study of history has a special relevance.

"We're in an age where everybody is increasingly skeptical," says Prof. Blasi. "Studying how ideas have mattered through time is an antidote to cynicism."

And it matters a great deal when educating women and men to be lawyers.

"One of the great challenges in teaching law is how to teach good judgment," he adds. "A historical perspective tends to make you more cautious in your claims about the present."

For Prof. Black, legal history is a form of comparative law, "Only you're comparing across time, not across the ocean," she says.

Photo: Library of Congress