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A Constitutional Imperative

Lessons in political civility, public discourse, and practical thinking

Patricia Peknik

One of the most inspiring moments in the American political process is the inauguration of a president, with its peaceful transfer of power and the president’s promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” I am unfailingly moved by the majesty and simplicity of the ceremony, and reminded how much students can learn from the study of our Constitution.

Begin with the fact that our Constitution was drafted in an act of brilliant collaboration during a time of crisis. Each delegate first contributed his ideas and talents, then stood aside and submitted his proposal to the public marketplace of ideas and the lengthy process of ratification. There is no better example of how individuals with the courage to challenge one another and the willingness to argue and debate can produce an enduring and efficient outcome.

And the rhetorical lessons of constitutional law are ever-renewable. The skills we most strive to teach our students — skills of analysis, inductive reasoning, and hypothetical and imaginative thinking — are on display in opinions written by the justices of the Supreme Court as they parse the language of the amendments, muse on the Founders’ intent, and confront the challenges of keeping the document a vital, dynamic text that can answer the complex questions of our day. In training students to read legal opinions, we train them to think more clearly, to reason by analogy, and to synthesize the conclusions of a diverse series of cases into the discovery and elaboration of larger principles. This is why I invariably base my teaching of composition on the reading and analysis of legal cases.

Yet teaching on constitutional law is not only a way to train students in the skills of argumentation, or an immersion in the case-study method that is so central to thecurriculum at a business university, such as the one where I teach It is the ideal method to deepen and challenge a liberal arts education. The study of constitutional law is an important part of an education in the humanities because constitutional law is ultimately a humanistic discipline, one that illuminates the historical and cultural backdrop against which we frame current controversies and moral problems. It is a way to understand the nation’s traditions and values, and to enter into sympathy with fellow citizens whose lives are radically different from our own but who, like us, have sought specific answers to real problems.

As Americans, we return to the amendments again and again, seeking to relitigate and refine their abundant meaning — what is “speech”? What are our rights to privacy? What are the powers and responsibilities of a free press within a culture that is fluid, dynamic and progressive? That is what makes the study of constitutional law a study of the pragmatism and inventiveness of American culture itself.

Nineteenth-century American philosopher William James described Americans as practical thinkers who are inclined to “look away from principles and categories” and to focus instead on outcomes, on “fruits, consequences, facts.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. agreed with James that the best thinkers are realistic, open-minded and optimistic, and that constitutional law teaches us to reach conclusions that are fair, intellectually rigorous and perhaps "contingent" — conclusions are not final but "for now," with the expectation that we will revisit them and perhaps alter our views.

That is the best argument of all for making the study of constitutional law an essential part of our students’ education. It should never go out of fashion.

Patricia Peknik is a lecturer in English and Media Studies at Bentley University.