Nov. 10, 1994
Vol. 15, No. 6

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    College establishes Center for Comparative Legal History

    First center at University to be located within the College The College has established the first center in the United States to combine interdisciplinary research with an undergraduate curriculum in comparative legal studies. The Center for Comparative Legal History, co-directed by Julius Kirshner, Professor in History, and William Novak, Assistant Professor in History, will pioneer the integration of legal-history studies into general liberal-arts education.

    "In addition to being the first of its kind in the nation, this is also the first center at the University to be located directly within the College," said John Boyer, Dean of the College. "We've united the Social Sciences and Humanities Collegiate Divisions, the New Collegiate Division and the Law School in a project designed to enhance the education of our undergraduates. We're grateful to Dennis Hutchinson, Master of the New Collegiate Division, Richard Saller, Dean of the Social Sciences Division, and Geoffrey Stone, Provost and former Dean of the Law School, for their help in accomplishing this goal."

    The idea for the center evolved from Kirshner's and Novak's frustration with the isolation of the study of law within professional schools. "We feel that law has been overlooked as a course of study for undergraduates," said Kirshner. "This is not to say we want to create a history-of-law department or a pre-law program, but rather that we're interested in orienting our students to the values found in legal texts as they have helped shape society.

    "We're committed to the idea that the study of law in Western civilization is a fundamental and indispensable part of a liberal education. The center's goals are to refocus attention on the historical study of law in humanistic scholarship and to integrate such study into the liberal-arts curriculum."

    Funded by a three-year grant from the Donner Foundation, the center will coordinate existing programs in legal history on campus, such as the Legal History Workshop and programs within the Law, Letters & Society concentration. It will also, as an initial project, develop a four-course sequence on Law in Western Civilization. The sequence will concentrate on legal changes from the Middle Ages to the present.

    In addition, the center will establish two undergraduate fellowships for study abroad under the guidance of distinguished foreign scholars, and it will support a Donner Fellowship for a postdoctoral researcher. The center will also offer workshops and seminars, including an international conference scheduled to be held at the University in 1997.

    "We're creating an integrated program," Kirshner said. "The way we teach law is not about law, per se, but about how law, in conjunction with religion and philosophy and society, shapes the way people live at any time in space. Throughout, our focus will be on cultivating that elusive, yet essential, creative nexus between original primary research and effective undergraduate teaching."

    "Chicago is the perfect place to do this because we can capitalize on its strengths," Novak said. "We are uniquely situated to put together a truly comparative program in Western legal history. Faculty from the Law School, the History Department, Political Science, SSA, the Oriental Institute and Classical Languages & Literatures will contribute to our courses. Our idea is not about new faculty or buildings -- it's about taking what is here already and creatively combining it in the Chicago spirit of interdisciplinary study and innovation."

    First on the center's long-term agenda will be the creation of course materials.

    "The problem is that there are whole areas in history for which there are no sources," Kirshner said. "One of the reasons that law has been overlooked in liberal education is that the texts are difficult -- they aren't translated into English, and they're technical. In order to teach effectively on the undergraduate level, we have to develop sources from the Middle Ages and the early modern period, translated from the original languages. The College will support this research, which will then be used to develop a curriculum. Usually this isn't done. We owe a great deal to Dean Boyer, who has had the vision to support us.

    "We wouldn't have undertaken these initiatives if we didn't have such good students," Kirshner added. "They're good. Many of our upper-level College students are really equivalent to graduate students at other places. Their ability to read the materials we ask them to read, their ability to analyze it and ask questions -- all of that is on a very high level. If we didn't have those students, we wouldn't have bothered with this project at all."