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“We the People” are the opening words of the U.S. Constitution, yet the original document did not give citizens much say in the election of their officials. Though some of those issues have been addressed, substantial barriers—gerrymandering, voter registration, and voter ID laws—still restrain the power of the vote. Why? How can a country, founded more than 200 years ago on the ideals of liberty, equality, and individualism, still struggle to empower all of its citizens equally?
This course explores the origins of U.S. political culture, how that culture informed the Constitution, and how that framework continues to influence the country’s politics and policies. We will examine the Constitution’s provisions for limited government, the division of power between the federal and state governments, and the forces that have made federalism a source of political conflict and change.
We will address how the Constitution not only established the structure of the U.S. government but guarantees personal freedoms and civil rights. These rights have been challenged and expanded in significant Supreme Court cases, which will help to illustrate how historically disadvantaged groups have struggled to realize the 14th Amendment's promise of equality.
- The foundations of the American political culture
- How the Constitution represented the idea of “limited government”
- Why the Constitution’s framers felt it necessary to limit popular influence
- The history of federalism as a constitutional issue
- How power is divided between the federal and state governments
- What individual rights are held by today’s Americans
- Which policies have expanded the rights of disadvantaged groups
This session will explore the origins of the nation’s political culture, its embrace by each succeeding generation of Americans, and its continuing influence on the nation’s politics and policies. U.S. welfare and education policy will be used to illustrate that influence. The session also highlights the nature of politics—the process through which society settles its conflicts over scarce resources and conflicting values.
Week 2: Limited Government
This session will examine the Constitution’s provisions for limited government and then explore the extent to which these provisions have curbed constitutional abuses of power. The main points of the session will be reinforced by examining a set of cases, including the Watergate scandal, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the Bush Administration’s handling of enemy detainees after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Week 3: Representative Government
This session will explore the reasons that the framers felt it necessary to limit popular influence, will describe how and why the original system changed, and will look at contemporary barriers—gerrymandering, voter registration, and voter ID laws—that inhibit voting.
Week 4: Federalism
The session will explain the division of power between the federal and state governments and also explain how broadly worded constitutional clauses, partisan differences, and changing national needs have combined to make federalism a source of political conflict and change. Among the cases explored in this session is the constitutional dispute provoked by the 2010 healthcare reform act.
Week 5: Civil Liberties
This session will examine these developments and explain the individual rights held by today’s Americans. Major Supreme Court rulings—such as those relating to free speech and protection from unreasonable search and seizure—will be discussed as a means of clarifying Americans’ civil liberties.
Week 6: Civil Rights
This session will focus on three policies that have been instrumental in expanding the rights and opportunities of disadvantaged groups: the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and affirmative action. The last of these policies have been particularly contentious and we’ll take a close look at it, including a recent Supreme Court ruling on a case involving the University of Texas at Austin.
Thomas E. Patterson
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning, and its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. The Harvard Corporation is its first chartered corporation. Although never formally affiliated with any denomination, the early College primarily trained Congregational and Unitarian clergy. Its curriculum and student body were gradually secularized during the 18th century, and by the 19th century, Harvard had emerged as the central cultural establishment among Boston elites. Following the American Civil War, President Charles W. Eliot's long tenure (1869–1909) transformed the college and affiliated professional schools into a modern research university; Harvard was a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900. A. Lawrence Lowell, who followed Eliot, further reformed the undergraduate curriculum and undertook aggressive expansion of Harvard's land holdings and physical plant. James Bryant Conant led the university through the Great Depression and World War II and began to reform the curriculum and liberalize admissions after the war. The undergraduate college became coeducational after its 1977 merger with Radcliffe College.
The university is organized into eleven separate academic units—ten faculties and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—with campuses throughout the Boston metropolitan area: its 209-acre (85 ha) main campus is centered on Harvard Yard in Cambridge, approximately 3 miles (5 km) northwest of Boston; the business school and athletics facilities, including Harvard Stadium, are located across the Charles River in the Allston neighborhood of Boston and the medical, dental, and public health schools are in the Longwood Medical Area. The endowment of Harvard's is worth $37.1 billion, making it the largest of any academic institution.
Harvard is a large, highly residential research university. The nominal cost of attendance is high, but the university's large endowment allows it to offer generous financial aid packages. The Harvard Library is the world's largest academic and private library system, comprising 79 individual libraries holding over 18 million items. The University is cited as one of the world's top tertiary institutions by various organizations.
Harvard's alumni include eight U.S. presidents, several foreign heads of state, 62 living billionaires, 359 Rhodes Scholars, and 242 Marshall Scholars. To date, some 157 Nobel laureates, 18 Fields Medalists, and 14 Turing Award winners have been affiliated as students, faculty, or staff. In addition, Harvard students and alumni have won 10 Academy Awards, 48 Pulitzer Prizes, and 108 Olympic medals (46 gold, 41 silver and 21 bronze).
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