Monday, May 7, 2012 - Why Colleges Don't Teach the Federalist Papers - Opinion: Peter Berkowitz: Why Colleges Don't Teach the Federalist Papers

At America's top schools, graduates leave without reading our most basic writings on the purpose of constitutional self-government.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of The Federalist for understanding the principles of American government and the challenges that liberal democracies confront early in the second decade of the 21st century. 

The masterpiece of American political thought originated as a series of newspaper articles published under the pseudonym Publius in New York between October 1787 and August 1788 by framers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. The aim was to make the case for ratification of the new constitution, which had been agreed to in September 1787 by delegates to the federal convention meeting in Philadelphia over four months of remarkable discussion, debate and deliberation about self-government.

By the end of 1788, a total of 85 essays had been gathered in two volumes under the title The Federalist. Written at a brisk clip and with the crucial vote in New York hanging in the balance, the essays formed a treatise on constitutional self-government for the ages.

The Federalist deals with the reasons for preserving the union, the inefficacy of the existing federal government under the Articles of Confederation, and the conformity of the new constitution to the principles of liberty and consent. It covers war and peace, foreign affairs, commerce, taxation, federalism and the separation of powers. It provides a detailed examination of the chief features of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It advances its case by restatement and refutation of the leading criticisms of the new constitution. It displays a level of learning, political acumen and public-spiritedness to which contemporary scholars, journalists and politicians can but aspire. And to this day it stands as an unsurpassed source of insight into the Constitution's text, structure and purposes.

Yet despite the lip service they pay to liberal education, our leading universities can't be bothered to require students to study The Federalist—or, worse, they oppose such requirements on moral, political or pedagogical grounds.  The bigger problem is that the progressive ideology that dominates our universities teaches that The Federalist, like all books written before the day before yesterday, is antiquated and irrelevant.

By robbing students of the chance to acquire a truly liberal education, our universities also deprive the nation of a citizenry well-acquainted with our Constitution's enduring principles.