A Modest Proposal

UC Berkeley’s law school recently changed its (unofficial) name from “Boalt Hall” to “Berkeley Law” because John Boalt, after whom the building that houses the law school was named, had “said racist things,” in the words of Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

But how does referring to the school with the name of someone who not only said racist things, but also owned slaves, solve the problem?

The city of Berkeley is named for the notorious slave-owner Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753), an Irish philosopher who took the opportunity provided by some years spent in Rhode Island to buy some of his fellow human beings and force them to labor on his plantation.

Perhaps the practice of naming cities, schools, universities, awards, etc. after individuals should be stopped. As we continue to make moral progress, and as previously unknown facts come to light, the reputation of any celebrated individual is likely to decline.

Instead, we should simply use numbers. We could number every city in California according to its population – with 1 being the most populous, 2 being the second most populous, and so on – but that would discriminate on the basis of size and would stigmatize small towns. It would be safer to number the cities by lottery.

There’s evidence that people can develop real sentimental attachment to numbers. When I was growing up in Southern California, people used place-names to refer to the freeways: the Newport Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, etc. As the various parts of the system became more integrated, people started referring to them by their official numbers: the 55, the 405, the 5, the 101, etc. Each of these numbers now conveys a distinctive feeling based on the shared understanding of the particular freeway they name (“the 55 is almost as bad as the 5”).

Similarly, schools could be numbered, as is already done in New York and Beijing. Universities too: “University of California #1” (assigned at random, of course, not according to academic reputation).

We might need to give some thought to “California,” a name with an ambiguous history. It might be best to number the states as well.

Bishop George Berkeley by John Smibert.

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