STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/09/2009
An Hour with the Constitution
Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, 39 men signed a document that forever changed the direction of the United States. On that same day hundreds of years later, Paul Brink, associate professor of political studies, had 32 freshmen in his American National Politics class spend the entire hour reading this document--in one sitting; out loud; in their own voices.
In honor of Constitution Day, Brink had his students take turns standing and reading, skipping over italicized text--sections that resulted in amendments from the original document. “My main goal is for students to know the Constitution, and to have read and heard it with some care at least once,” explains Brink. “Both the right and the left see it as the bedrock of American politics, and both sides also appeal to it. So students need to have more than a passing acquaintance with the Constitution.” The skipped sections will be used as discussion material later in the class.
Brink thinks his oral reading is “a great discussion starter” with his students, since hearing the Constitution out loud can raise questions for political studies students who, like many citizens, may only know passing references to the Constitution. “It leads us to ask questions like ‘Should we read the Bill of Rights? Should these amendments be considered part of the Constitution? Would you have signed the Constitution without the Bill of Rights?’”
Brink said his students also wrestle over the phrase in Article 1, the famous “three-fifths of other persons” description, which was included for determining a state’s number of representatives and for taxation purposes, identifying slaves as only three-fifths of a human being.
“That’s a hard question for our global students today,” Brink said. “And more comparative questions emerge as well: the United Kingdom doesn’t have a written constitution--at least not in a single document--and yet the country apparently is a healthy democracy. So how important is our Constitution anyway?”