`A civics lesson for us all'. Educators hope that the history won't be lost amid the hoopla

According to retiring United States Chief Justice Warren Burger, ``the battle'' to establish a more perfect system of American government and justice ``is not yet finished.'' ``It is your job now,'' he told 400 Maryland high school students recently, ``to carry the battle on.''

Mr. Burger's comments were part of a four-day event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Annapolis Convention -- a Sept. 12, 1786 meeting of five Colonial states that triggered the May 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The Annapolis Convention celebration officially kicked-off the Bicentennial of the US Constitution -- an event Burger says will provide ``a history and civics lesson for us all.''

Yet even as a horse-drawn Colonial carriage drew up in front of the Maryland State House in a historical reenactment of the road to Philadelphia in 1787, there was an undercurrent of feeling among many educators, historians, and government officials present that serious or relevant ``lessons'' about the Constitution are on the whole lacking.

The Constitution has often been seen by students as a somewhat dry, legalistic document. ``By itself, deadly boring'' as one scholar described it. The subtle issues of checks and balances, rights, and the exercise of power can't compete with the fife-and-drum romance of the American Revolution and the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Nor does it score very high on the imaginary ``fun-meter'' when compared with the emotional pizzaz of the recent Statue of Liberty centennial. Indeed, as a high school junior at the Annapolis event flatly said: ``Most of my friends could care less about the Constitution -- it needs to be made more interesting.''

A Maryland social studies teacher added: ``We need to do a better job teaching the drama behind the Constitution. It's not always easy to get a 15- or 16-year-old off MTV, you know.''

And there is plenty of drama surrounding the Constitution, speakers at Annapolis pointed out. Winning the Revolutionary War was one thing. Shaping a new nation was quite another. Once the British bogeyman was gone, the colonies -- many of them bankrupt, provincial, and in hot disagreement on issues such as commerce, slavery, and taxes -- had to set about the difficult task of learning to live with one another.

What happened next, as historian Page Smith describes it, was that ``two thousand years of political theorizing and practical experience crystallized in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 in the most brilliantly sustained intellectual and oratorical achievement of history.''

A government of laws, not men, had been formed under the principles of equality and freedom. ``That had never been done before in the world's history,'' notes Columbia University historian Richard Morris. ``Rome, the closest example, quickly turned into an empire.''

Educators today are concerned that the true context and contemporary importance of the Constitution could be lost in a lot of celebratory hoopla. ``We're going to be wasting a lot of time,'' says one historian, ``if we just dress students up in costumes.''

Some historians, such as Michael Kammen of Cornell University, point out that the average American has never understood much about the complex issues and interpretations surrounding the Constitution. That task they've left to a relatively small group of lawyers and scholars, he says.

It's true that the fabric of the nation is based on the trust Americans have in their Constitutional freedoms -- even without so articulating it, former attorney general Benjamin Civiletti told the Monitor.

But, Mr. Civiletti says, ``it is now more important than ever for future citizens to understand Constitutional issues -- the matrix of what makes the country what it is.''

In a world of instant communication, he added, the nation can develop a groundswell of public opinion overnight. ``Citizens have to be able to distinguish between what is a true Constitutional principle, and what is not.''

Thus far, a host of materials -- debate topics, mock-trial subjects, and curricula -- have been developed by various groups. Educators say it has yet to be seen whether these materials will make it into the classroom in a serious way.

On Nov. 15, the National Council of Social Studies is hosting 110 workshops in all 50 states on how to teach the Constitution. ``Project '87,'' a collaboration between the American Political Science Asociation and the American Historical Society, has put out a series of 60 lessons on the Constitution.

The American Bar Association is sponsoring mock trials around the country. USA Today has a nationwide essay contest, as well as a special, lively tabloid newspaper for students offering background tidbits on the Constitution -- everything from student opinion to thumbnail sketches of landmark Supreme Court decisions and thoughts of the Founding Fathers.

Carrying that theme further, the state of Illinois has modeled an exercise in which students put together a newspaper that would have come out Sept. 18, 1787, the day after the Constitution was ratified.

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