Mark Brilliant

Associate Professor
Office Hours: 
on leave
2311 Dwinelle
(510) 642-2118

B.A. Brown University, 1989
Ph.D. Stanford, 2002

Curriculum Vitae: 
Research Interests: 

20th century U.S.; comparative civil rights (with a focus on politics and law); the American West; American education


Born in New York City and raised in Denver, Colorado, I received my bachelor's degree from Brown University in 1989. I then taught social studies at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, New York from 1990 through 1994, after which I headed to Stanford University, where I earned my Ph.D. in history in 2002. Following Stanford, I spent two years at Yale University, the first as a post-doctoral fellow at the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders and the second as a lecturer in the history department. I then came to the University of California, Berkeley in September 2004 as an assistant professor in history and American studies. In September 2010, Oxford University Press published my first book, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. It won the Cromwell Book Prize from the American Society for Legal History and received honorable mention from the Organization of American Historians for the Frederick Jackson Turner Award. I am currently conducting research for two new books, the first on the history of school finance reform and the second on California's Proposition 13.

Statement on Pedagogical Philosophy

In my teaching, I aim to cultivate in my students the habits of the mind I employ as a scholar. Learning the content of what I teach is a necessary but not sufficient step in this direction. After all, a professor who approaches teaching as an exercise in simply giving over factual information—channeling a textbook—cannot expect more than the regurgitation of factual information in return on exams and papers. Expecting more, as I do, means modeling more of what I expect, as well as providing the requisite scaffolding to get there (lecture outlines, questions to guide assigned readings, detailed writing assignment prompts and exam reviews, etc.). If I want students to learn how to make arguments using evidence—to marshal the "what" of content in the service of the "so what" of interpretation—then it behooves me to do precisely that in my teaching. To this end, my lectures typically involve advancing and subsequently defending a thesis, which I usually spell out in the outlines I distribute in class and post on bSpace. Similarly, my seminar sessions always involve zeroing in on the assigned reading’s thesis and evidence that supports it, for which I guide students with questions posted in bSpace prior to each class. In my teaching, I also model and stress the importance of actively pursuing what Max Weber once described as "inconvenient facts"—the evidence that might very well confound the interpretive assumptions with which scholarly inquiry inevitably begins. Only by subjecting our subjectivities to such searing scrutiny do we allow for the possibility of defying our sensibilities, confounding our most cherished truths, and, as a result, truly expanding our intellectual horizons. To do otherwise runs the risk of venturing down a road that merely deposits us back where we began, corroborating what we already know, in which case why go through all the trouble in the first place.

Lecture Courses

The American West Since 1845 (History 126BAC)
This course surveys the history of the American West since 1845. We will pay particular heed to the history and historiography surrounding those aspects of the West that are typically associated with the region's distinctiveness as both a shifting region on the national map and a potent metaphor in the national imagination. These include: a cultural history propagated in film and literature in which the region occupies center stage in the drama of America's development as a democratic society; an ethnoracial history that consists of a complex, multiracial (as opposed to biracial) pattern of race relations; an environmental history shaped by a scarcity of water amidst an abundance of extractive resources; an urban history characterized by the nation's highest concentration of urbanization and an approach to metropolitan development that shaped that of the rest of the nation; and a political history shaped by an especially pervasive federal government presence in the region's development along with being a national bellwether for both liberal action and conservative reaction. Throughout the course, we will reflect on whether claims about the West's distinctiveness are in fact regionally and analytically distinctive, or whether its time, as some historians have recently declared, to abandon the history of the American West as a historical sub-field.

American Education and the American Dream (American Studies 10)
This course will explore the history of American education and its connection to the American Dream, which views schooling as the most integral, public institutional means to its realization. In the process, this course will introduce students to the eclectic, inderdisciplinary sources and methods of American Studies, the only academic field of inquiry that takes America as a whole as its unit of analysis. Given their many distinctively American attributes, American education, the American Dream, and the relationship between the two provide an ideal subject for learning about American Studies. Topics to be addressed include: the origins of public school systems during the half century or so after the American Revolution; the evolution of public school systems in response to the transformations wrought by immigration, industrialization, and geopolitics; the recurring culture wars over curricular content; the efficacy of public education at promoting (or precluding) socioeconomic mobility; and the sociolegal struggles over desegregation, school finance equalization, and affirmative action in higher education admissions. Each of these subjects speaks in to the various roles of schooling in supporting (or thwarting) equality of opportunity, which resides at the heart of the American Dream.

Civil Rights and Social Movements in U.S. History: Struggles for Racial Equality in Comparative Perspective, 1940 – present (History 139C / American Studies 139AC)
"Civil Rights and Social Movements in U.S. History" presents a top-down (political and legal history), bottom-up (social and cultural history), and comparative (by race and ethnicity as well as region) view of America's struggles for racial equality from roughly World War II until the present. Beginning with the onset of World War II, America experienced not a singular, unitary Civil Rights Movement – as is typically portrayed in standard textbook accounts and the collective memory – but rather a variety of contemporaneous civil rights and their related social movements. These movements, moreover, did not follow a tidy chronological-geographic trajectory from South to North to West, nor were their participants merely black and white. Instead, from their inception, America's civil rights movements unfolded both beyond the South and beyond black and white. "Civil Rights and Social Movements in U.S. History" endeavors to equip students with a greater appreciation for the complexity of America's civil rights and social movements history – a complexity that neither a black / white nor nonwhite / white framework adequately captures. Put another way, "Civil Rights and Social Movements in U.S. History" will examine how the problem of the color line – which W.E.B. DuBois deemed to be in 1903 the problem of the twentieth century – might better be viewed as a problem of color lines. If America's demographics are increasingly beyond black and white, if "the classic American dilemma has now become many dilemmas of race and ethnicity," as President Clinton put it in the late 1990s, if color lines now loom as the problem of the 21st century, then a course on America's civil rights and social movements past may very well offer a glimpse into America's civil rights and social movements present and future.

Undergraduate Seminars

California Dreaming: The Making, Unmaking, and Remaking of the Golden State from World War II to the Tax Revolt (American Studies 101)
This course – a reading intensive discussion seminar – will explore major topics and themes in California history from World War II to the tax revolt (i.e., Proposition 13), with attention paid to critical developments before and after these years, where appropriate. More specifically, it will examine how and why the so-called California Dream was made, unmade, and remade, focusing on suburbanization and its environmental discontents; water and its limits for the fields, pastures and people that demand it; liberal political action and conservative political reaction; race, racism, and anti-racism on America's "racial frontier"; and the waxing and waning of California's K-college public education system. This history, in turn, will provide important leverage for grappling with contemporary debates over whether the California dream, to the extent that it existed, has now devolved into a nightmare with no end in sight.

The Circle of "We" and Policy History in the United States Since the Civil War (History 101)
This seminar will serve to guide you through the capstone experience of your undergraduate history education: the researching and writing of your senior thesis. Successful completion of this challenging, but rewarding, endeavor requires you to do the work of a historian. Ultimately, this translates to producing a piece of scholarship – in this case a 35-45 page final paper – in which you articulate and defend a historical interpretation/argument rooted in extensive primary source research and informed by thorough secondary source reading. The theme for this seminar is, as per the course title, "the circle of 'we' and policy history in United States History since the Civil War." The "circle of 'we'" refers to just who exactly is constituted by the "we" in the United States Constitution's "We the people." In theory, the "we" upon whom the Constitution bestows "liberty" and "justice" – the full rights and privileges of citizenship – in the quest to "form a more perfect union" is not so circumscribed. In practice, of course, the "circle of 'we'" has never been as inclusive as the pronoun implies. One of the major themes in U.S. history is the struggle of individuals representing groups of people (including, ethnoracial and religious minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, the poor, and even non-citizens residing in the U.S. or U.S. territories) to enter into the "circle of 'we'" and, in the process, expand its boundaries and redefine its content. Barack Obama, for example, often invoked this theme during his historic run for the presidency. He spoke of the "gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time" and how, over time, "through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk," that gap has "narrowed." The theses to be written in this seminar do not, of course, have to subscribe to President Obama's progressive reading of the ineluctable expansion of the "circle of 'we'" in U.S. history; they are free to point in opposite or simply more convoluted directions, if that's where the primary sources lead. They must, however, explore some topic that comports with the theme of "the circle of 'we'" in U.S. history and the struggle to expand (or contract) it. Moreover, they must do so through the lens of policy history. A relatively new field of inquiry, policy history calls for the weaving together of essential elements of the more established sub-fields of social/cultural ("bottom up") and political/legal history ("top down"). As defined by one leading policy historian, "Policy history allows historians to incorporate a broader range of actors into narratives than previous generations of historians have been able to do. The tension between scholars who study elite politics and grassroots politics quickly dissipates when policy is made the center of inquiry. After all, public policies are crafted by government officials in alliance with, and in response to, other social and political actors. Federal, state, and local policies influence – and are shaped by – all types of social actors and institutions." In short, each student enrolled in this seminar must write his or her thesis on a policy-oriented attempt to expand (or contract) the "circle of 'we'" in United States history since the Civil War. Though each thesis will be tackled individually, collectively the theses will allow seminar participants to reflect in a more general way on how to understand one of the pivotal topics and themes in the history of the United States. Whether this reflection vindicates President Obama's interpretation of the ever-expanding "circle of 'we'" – which numerous other leading scholars also embrace – remains to be seen.

Race and Racism in the United States in Comparative Perspective (History 103)
Though the concept of "race" has been scientifically assailed as a means for capturing human biological variation, the practice of racism – premised on a particular set of beliefs about race – has been, and remains, a potent force. How and why has race been made real in U.S. history and with what consequences? What kinds of initiatives have been pursued to un-make race and racism and with what effects? How have the historical experiences of making and unmaking race and racism converged and diverged for different racialized groups? And how can we study this history without reifying the concept (race) that undergirds the problem (racism)? These are some of the central questions that this course – a discussion seminar – proposes to tackle, paying particular attention to politics, policy, and law in the United States from the late nineteenth century forward.

The Meanings of America and the Development of American Studies, 1930s to the Present (American Studies 110H)
This intensive honors reading seminar traces the development of the field of American Studies from its origins in the 1930s to the present. Seminal scholarly books in Americans Studies will serve as the principle means to this end. Each of these books has at its core a claim about the "meaning" of America whose substantive contours, methodological approach, and scholarly response we will examine. Over the course of the semester, we will compare, contrast, and evaluate the various "meanings" of America advanced in the books under scrutiny. In the process, we will map the historical trajectory of the only academic field of inquiry that takes America as a whole as its unit of analysis – its pivotal junctures, critical conversations and controversies, and broader sociopolitical contexts within which they emerged.

Graduate Seminars

Historiography of the United States from Reconstruction to Reagan (History 275D)
This graduate seminar, which is geared for history doctoral students preparing for their orals, examines important and innovative United States historiography from Reconstruction through the 1970s. The readings will correspond to major periods, topics, and themes in United States history and reflect a wide range of genres, but with an emphasis on politics, policy, law, race, and region. Cutting edge scholarship will be approached on its own terms (empirically, methodologically, and analytically), as well as within the broader historiographic tradition (its questions, claims, and evolution) with which it is in conversation.


Some of My Favorite Quotes about History

(if you have a favorite quote about history not included here, feel free to e-mail it to me)

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, 1940

When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.

Julian Barnes, 1984

When an apple has ripened and falls - why does it fall? Is it because of gravity, because its stem withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it?

Leo Tolstoy, 1869

[T]he struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Milan Kundera, 1980

Historiography, I will continue to insist, cannot be a substitute for collective memory, nor does it show signs of creating an alternative tradition that is capable of being shared. But the essential dignity of the historical vocation remains, and its moral imperative seems to me now more urgent than ever. For in the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and the declining consciousness of the past, but of the aggressive rape of whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness. Against the agents of oblivion, the shredders of documents, the assassins of memory, the revisers of encyclopedias, the conspirators of silence, against those who, in Kundera's wonderful image, can airbrush a man out of a photograph so that nothing is left of him but his hat - only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, 1982

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one's own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts - especially coming to grips with a rival's perspective - require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one's own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another's eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally - in the last analysis, to develop, as Thomas Nagel would say, a view of the world in which one's own self stands not at the center, but appears merely as one object among many. To be dissatisfied with the view of the world as it initially appears to us, and to struggle to formulate a superior, more inclusive, less self-centered alternative, is to strive for detachment and aim at objectivity. And to turn thus against one's most natural self - to engage in this uncanny, dreadfully joyous labor of a soul voluntarily at odds with itself - is to commit that very sin against the will to power that Nietzsche so irresponsibly condemned.

Thomas Haskell, 1990

The primary task of a useful teacher is to recognize 'inconvenient facts' - I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts.

Max Weber, 1918

But the past is another country, and to bring it to some sort of dramatic life takes a capacity for which there is no English word. It was not until the eighteenth century that a German, J.G. Herder, coined Einfuhlen - the act of feeling one's way into the past not by holding up a mirror but by steeping through the mirror into the alien world.

Gore Vidal, 1997 Jackson Turner

Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time ... The aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past. For the present is simply the developing past, the past the undeveloped present ... The antiquarian tries to bring back the past for the sake of the present; the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past. The goal of the antiquarian is the dead past; the goal of the historian is the living present.

Frederick Jackson Turner, 1891

And it becomes evident also only when one assumes that the past was not incidentally but essentially different from the present; when one seeks as the points of greatest relevance those critical passages of history where elements of our familiar present, still part of an unfamiliar past, begin to disentangle themselves, begin to emerge amid confusion and uncertainty. For these soft, ambiguous moments where the words we use and the institutions we know are notably present but are still enmeshed in older meanings and different purposes - those are the moments of true origination. They reveal in purest form essential features which subsequent events complicate and modify but never completely transform.

Bernard Bailyn, 1960

The belief that time is a linear directed sequence running from A to B is a modern illusion. In fact it can go from B to A, the effect producing the cause.

Umerberto Eco, 1989

[I]t is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting. Or, to explain myself more clearly concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1873