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How not to teach the Constitution

IN this, the bicentennial year of the writing of the Constitution, schools everywhere have started turning their attention to the history of the founding period, to the delegates who met together that hot summer in Philadelphia, and to the text of the document itself. But what, with the words in hand, will they teach? Indeed, how many classes will start out this way: ``By Friday memorize the Preamble and be able to tell me where revenue bills originate, how old you would have to be to be elected senator, and how the pocket veto works.'' Could anything be drearier? Now it's easy to read the Constitution that way, as a dry catalog of facts and list upon list of procedures. But unless we are able to see and to explain the design, the great ideas, that animate the particulars of the Constitution, we always run the risk of playing a constitutional trivial game or of turning tests on the Constitution into the academic equivalent of the driver's exam: How many feet from the hydrant can you legally park? How many states does it take to ratify an amendment? Quick, who can grant letters of marque and reprisal?

To miss the thought, to miss the argument behind the Constitution and its parts, is to miss the whole point. In the very first of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that ``it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.'' Reflection and choice. Unless we make a conscious effort to understand the ideas that give life to our Constitution, that document will seem only a stale and legalistic curiosity.

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Nevertheless, the questions the founders raised in constructing the Constitution are the same questions our students ask: What kind of government should we have? What are the limits of political power? How do we make democracy work? How do we secure freedom? How do we mix freedoms and responsibilities? How strong should a government be? What do we mean when we talk about equality? Why should a democracy have a constitution in the first place? What's so good about liberal democracy anyway?

From such questions flow other, more typically American questions: Why separation of powers? Why checks and balances? Why judicial review? Why federalism?

Such questions arise easily from the text itself, if only we let them. For example, take the requirement that members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms but senators serve six. The more we consider it, the more we can see that each term means to draw out and then mix certain qualities - perhaps closeness of the people plus distance from momentary excitements, responsiveness yet stability, short-term interests with long-term needs. Add to this the staggering of the terms for senators, their smaller number when compared with the House, the four-year term for president, and the permanent tenure of the judiciary, and soon a full, complex picture of democracy arises. Not just ``majority rule,'' not just ``one person, one vote,'' but a rich theory of popular government, one that takes democracy and, through the mechanism of terms of office, tries to mix in some valuable qualities not often associated with simple democratic rule. We can help our students ask why this might be so, what the founders' reasons and intent were, and also ask how well we think they succeeded.

The Constitution is packed with these ideas, ideas masquerading as procedure or as simple statements of fact. Why is no religious test for office allowed? Why did the founders use ``mechanisms'' (like terms of office) to call up certain qualities? Why no requirements of personal character or property or education? Why did they represent people and places and avoid representing interest groups? Why did they talk around slavery and never use the word slavery or slavery itself?

To teach this way means taking the Constitution seriously, as a document able to speak to us directly today. It means not dismissing the document as the product of its time and place. It means not assuming that our problems now are bigger or harder or more complex than the founders' problems. It means not assuming that our forebears' ideals were rudimentary or that our history has simply been one of constant ascendance from crude and awkward beginnings. It means not reducing the Constitution to a set of mechanical procedures fit only for memorization. It means seeing the Constitution as ``living'' only because the founders' ideas are alive, not because we've had the good sense to improve on them. Above all, it means being willing to learn from the founders and their Constitution and not just about them.

The notion of liberal democracy is not without powerful enemies. Nation upon nation lives under governments given by accident or by force. If we expect each new generation of Americans to protect the Constitution, we are then burdened with the happy obligation of illuminating it and explaining its ideas. No American has ever fought to defend the Constitution because it was a nice catalog of times, dates, and procedures.

Only if we begin by taking seriously Hamilton's charge - that we have formed for ourselves a government from reflection and choice, that behind the Constitution are powerful, reasoned, and compelling ideas - will we truly honor the document.

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John Agresto is deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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