The Norman Transcript

February 28, 2012

OU panel discussion focuses on Constitutional history

By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — To conclude what University of Oklahoma President David Boren called “one of the most important single-day programs in American history ever held in our state,” all six of the day’s Teach-In speakers convened in Paul F. Sharp concert hall for a panel discussion moderated by nationally-acclaimed talk show host Diane Rehm.

Joining them was Kyle Harper, director of the OU Institute for American Constitutional Heritage and an assistant professor in the OU Department of Classics and Letters.

The discussion topic was “The Teaching of Constitutional History in the 21st Century University,” and, in his introduction, Boren called a nationwide lack of knowledge on the U.S. Constitution “very alarming,” stating that college graduates with only one government or U.S. history course on their transcripts “Do not meet (his) definition of a well-educated person.”

Rehm’s primary question drew from this statement and prompted panelists to identify the shortcomings at the center of this trend of ignorance, with replies covering a broad range of issues.

Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough answered first, saying that we must support teachers fully and not blame them, rather understanding that true civic involvement and understanding begins at home, with primary responsibility resting on parents.

Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar agreed, praising his parents’ inspiring him at an early age with visits to Mount Vernon and the White House, and saying college is “a bit late” to begin forming good civic habits.

Another prominent point of concurrence was that educators and Americans in general must avoid a tendency to separate themselves from their founders and foundational documents, viewing the country’s founders as far-distant heroes and the Constitution as untouchable.

In their responses, Rosemarie Zagarri and Peter Onuf called attention to the Constitution’s contingency elements, showing how the founders themselves recognized their government and personal judgment as imperfect, and expecting the people to be involved in its processes.

“Because modern Americans don’t know enough about the Constitutional Convention, they tend to think that modern controversies are unlike those of the past and fail to understand that the politics of founding the country were just as bitterly contested as many of today’s issues. What’s different is the sense of ownership in the people,” Zagarri said.

“(As citizens) we should operate not by thinking the Constitution is perfect, but by imagining we are the founding fathers and attempting to channel their forward-thinking debate,” Onuf said.

Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and professor emeritus at Brown University, was positive in his response to the question of educational shortcomings, saying that historians are somewhat to blame for the de-prioritizing of Constitutional literacy with a “preoccupation” on other social issues.

“I think, at the undergraduate level, Constitutional education has always been there, it’s just been somewhat neglected over the past 40 years. But I think changes are coming, especially as these other issues become outdated and tired,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Wood gave an address after lunch, introduced by Dr. Paul Gilje, an OU history professor who was a graduate assistant for Wood at Brown.

Wood took note of the speech’s setting — inside the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and said Thomas Jefferson would have been enthralled at the museum and the dinosaur models.

“He assumed these creatures were still out there because God would not let them go extinct,” he joked.

Wood said Americans are preoccupied with the nation’s founders because of a search for our own identity. The American revolution infused our culture with the ideas of liberty and equality and the stories of the founders helps knit society together.

“McDonald’s and Starbucks can’t do it. We needed something else,” he said.

He contrasted the founding fathers’ wealth and lifestyles to that of the English nobility. America’s leaders wanted to become enlightened gentlemen but in England would be considered “minor gentry,” at best, Wood said.

He said American founders and the Scottish people of the time had much in common. Both had roots in two worlds, lived near what they considered barbaric people and sought civility and refinement.

Wood, who has been to OU before, said the founders have been revered throughout the ages.

“Despite what Tom Brokaw says, I think these founders represent the greatest generation,” Wood said.

Later Monday, in a speech before about 1,400 guests at the Embassy Suites Hotel, McCullough spoke of John Adams and how education and reading transformed a farm boy into the world traveler, founding father and future president.

“We must judge people by what they say and write and by what they read,” he said. “Until we understand the culture, we’re not going to understand what they were like as human beings.”

Adams’ father sold some land to help pay for his son’s education. Adams, he said, was transformed by books.

“Adams would never stop reading. He would never stop learning.”

McCullough spoke of Adams as an honest, brave, virtuous man who lived life well. He was the only one of America’s founding fathers who did not own a slave.

“John Adams was not one of the greatest presidents, but I think he lived one of the most interesting lives,” McCullough said.

He concluded the day’s events by encouraging participants to read books, visit historic sites and bring back dinner-time conversation with children and grandchildren.

“History,” McCullough said, “is part of being alive.”

Executive Editor Andy Rieger contributed to this report.