THE Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Clarence Thomas were set this week in a special time of recognition: This is Constitution Week, with Tuesday proclaimed by President Bush as Citizenship Day.The pattern for these observances was set by Congress back in the 1950s, when the landmark school desegregation cases began, followed by the spate of civil rights legislation in the '60s and the 1973 Roe v. Wade reproductive rights decision. Again and again, American citizens were asked to revise their practices in light of new interpretations of the force of law. They have not always liked it. Reaction gave way to the conservative political movement that has elected three Republican presidents. And yet the American concept of citizenship requires a yielding of support to the constitutional system even when one is not entirely happy with decisions that come of it. In his proclamation, President Bush quoted jurist Learned Hand: "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it." The nomination of Clarence Thomas is moving through a process of challenge and scrutiny to confirmation and support. Thomas's prior statements about affirmative action and his refusal to state an exact position on Roe v. Wade would, in the minds of many Americans, disqualify him from taking a seat on the Supreme Court. His statements of distress at seeing minority prisoners rounded up for processing and the whispered talk of unsafe and illegal abortions when he was a child show at least a sensitivity to the human conditions affected by the constitutional principles he would be asked to determine. Thomas disavowed or explained away much of his paper trail. Positions he had taken as a student or as a federal administrator were in keeping with those times. As a judge he would take no prior personal views into account, he told his Senate interrogators. Was this a confirmation conversion? People's views do change. People grow into responsibility. We do not really know how deeply the role of Supreme Court jurist would affect Thomas. Many citizens long to convert themselves to a higher set of principles than those they have held. If Thomas were not to have moved from some of his prior positions, his opponents would have been at him for obduracy. The fact is, Americans have a remarkable confidence in the corrective force implicit in their Constitution. They hold to this idealism in the face of the disproportionate burden of poverty borne by minorities, the unequal treatment of women, and the slipping of cogs of an education system entrusted with equalizing opportunity. They would expect the responsibility of upholding the Constitution to have an impact on jurist-citizen Thomas. The question most directly raised by the Thomas nomination, minority preferences, is not easily addressed. Economist Herbert Stein recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Advocates of racial preferences should recognize that they are not efficient ways of dealing with the real problems of poverty, high dropout rates, female-headed families, unemployment, and violence that affect minorities disproportionately but not only minorities.... If they take the form of preferences in hiring and college admiss ions, they reduce productivity; and they impose burdens randomly among members of the majority who are not particularly affluent, which naturally provokes resentment.... At the same time, those who are most insistent on the impropriety of reverse discrimination, affirmative action, and racial quotas should see that they are not exempt from responsibility to face the real problems of the disadvantaged in America, regardless of race." Politically, President Bush will gain by having nominated a black, Thomas, to the Supreme Court. The irony of seeing white senators, longtime opponents of minority rights, promoting Thomas will fade. It is assumed he will be confirmed. Thomas did not ace his nomination exam. He was thoughtful, respectful. He tried to set aside any ideological baggage. He indicated he would accept the discipline of the assignment and do his best. If he is approved, citizens will support both the office of associate justice and the man who attempts to grow into it.