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More false attacks on what and how we teach at Berkeley

Mark Peterson, professor of history | May 11, 2012

On Monday, May 7, the print edition of the Wall Street Journal carried another op-ed piece by Peter Berkowitz, of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who in recent weeks has falsely accused the UC system of “indoctrinating” our students, including the remarkably foolish claim that  “on seven of the nine UC campuses, including Berkeley, a survey course in Western civilization is not even offered” (WSJ, March 30, 2012).  This would come as a great shock to my colleagues, who offer exactly this course, History 5, to hundreds of students every semester.

Berkowitz’s latest diatribe claims to explain “Why Colleges Don’t Teach the Federalist Papers.”  He names Berkeley, as well as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, among the culprits.  This, too, came as a shock to one of the undergraduates in my course on the American Revolution, History 121B, as he had been required to read significant portions of The Federalist assigned in the course.  He clipped out the article and brought it to me just before the final exam.  Berkowitz’s op-ed piece can be found here:

Despite the broad-stroke smear suggested by the headline, Berkowitz’s essay narrows his target to law schools and political science departments, so perhaps he didn’t bother to check on Berkeley’s offerings in history.  Nevertheless, his understanding of the purpose, meaning, intentions, and context of The Federalist and its relationship to the US Constitution is so inaccurate, and so skewed to reflect presentist right-wing sentiments, as to be positively misleading.  So while my students took their final exam on Tuesday, I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, hoping to correct the record.  I have received no reply, and don’t expect my letter to appear in the Journal, but at least readers of this blog can get an accurate sense of what we teach, and how we teach it, at Berkeley.

To the editor:

Mr. Berkowitz confuses a political gloss on the Constitution with the Constitution itself.  (“Why Colleges Don’t Teach the Federalist Papers,” May 7, 2012).  My Berkeley students know better.  As I write these words, my undergraduates in the American Revolution course are taking their final exam, and their assigned reading has included major selections from The Federalist.

But unlike Mr. Berkowitz in his narrow view of the subject, my students also read major selections from equally prominent anti-Federalist arguments made during this critical time period.  They also read the best monograph on the subject, Pauline Maier’s, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010), and therefore they know something that Berkowitz chooses to ignore — that when it came to voting on ratification, the Constitution squeaked through by a narrow margin.  In two critical states, Virginia and New York, where Madison, Hamilton, and Jay published their Federalist arguments, ratification was approved by a margin of 13 votes out of the 225 cast — in New York the margin was three.  The Federalist was not the “single surest analysis of the problems that the Constitution was intended to solve and the manner in which it was intended to operate,” it was a collection of polemical arguments published in a few critical states, where supporters of its argument won the narrowest of political victories in favor of a radical expansion of national government.

Furthermore, Mr. Berkowitz, in his selective quotation of James Madison from Federalist 45, also glosses over the fact that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were by no means consistent in their interpretation of the constitutional draft.  Yes, Madison in #45 claimed that the powers of the national government are “few and defined,” but he said so in answer to opponents of the constitution who feared the “Danger from the Powers of the Union to the State Governments.”  Virtually every one of the promises and predictions Madison made in #45 turned out to be wrong, and it was Madison himself, as Congressman and President, who later contradicted in his actions some of the arguments he made on paper as “Publius.”  Madison also strongly endorsed, in the very next paragraph of #45, the “new power” of “the regulation of commerce,” adding that it “seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.”

Meanwhile, for every time Madison describes the national government as limited, Hamilton describes it as “energetic,” and lauds its power to rectify the conditions of “national disorder” and “poverty” that were then plaguing the American “community so blessed with natural advantages as we are” (Federalist 15).  Hamilton was explaining the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve our union,” and therefore calling for a much stronger and more centralized government than the one that currently existed under the Articles.

In 2012, the United States faces problems of poverty and disorder far beyond anything lurking in 1787.  But Mr. Berkowitz would hamstring the will of the people through their national government to repair our national disorder, by virtue of a narrow, partial, and one-sided reading of a polemical argument.  Hamilton would be appalled, and so would the undergraduates in my course at Berkeley, who have read the arguments from both sides and know it in full.  It was, in fact, a student in the course who brought the clipping of Mr. Berkowitz’s essay to my attention, with the errors already underlined.

Mark Peterson