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Educators Are Implored To Stress Broad View Of Constitution

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Several prominent jurists and historians, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, have given food for thought this spring to teachers drafting lesson plans for next fall's bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

They have publicly stated reservations many educators may have held privately over the prospects of an uncritical celebration of the document and its framers.

In the words of Justice Marshall, such a celebration would, by paying no heed to the flaws of the original, "invite a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the 'more perfect union' it is said we now enjoy.''

"To the contrary,'' Mr. Marshall said in a speech last month to patent and trademark lawyers, "the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.''

But, according to many teachers and curriculum specialists interviewed last week, schools have anticipated such critiques and are stressing that the Constitution has evolved over time to include blacks, women, and other groups excluded in 1787.

"I don't think we were caught unawares,'' said Paula O'Connor, director of special projects for the American Federation of Teachers. "We are telling students what kind of document it is, warts and all.''

In addition to Mr. Marshall's remarks, calls for a broader view of the process through which constitutional rights were achieved have come this spring from meetings held specifically to discuss the document.

In April, at a gathering of more than 2,000 historians in Philadelphia, Leon F. Litwack, the outgoing president of the Organization of American Historians, expressed the sentiments of many when he said that to ignore the role of "the abolitionists, the slave rebels, the Reconstruction Congress, the civil-rights and women's movement'' and others would cause the bicentennial observance to "become shrouded in mythology and iconography.''

And last month, at a meeting in New York City sponsored by the Columbia University Law School and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund, several federal judges questioned the accepting reverence with which the Founding Fathers--many of whom were slaveowners--are portrayed.

"Under the original Constitution, blacks were not people,'' said Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, adding that "the predominant drive to form the union was a commercial one.''

That the word "slave'' never appears in the original document, he said, was "an exercise in nondisclosure'' by the framers.

There is evidence that schools are incorporating such themes into their commemorative activities, set to culminate Sept. 16 with a national "teach in'' on the Constitution.

For example:

The District of Columbia school system held a workshop for teachers this spring with the Georgetown University Law Center on "The Constitution: Justice for All?'' It enabled teachers to consider how black people should think about the Constitution, according to Judy Aronson, assistant director of social studies for the district.

In New York City, the board of education and the commission on human rights held a series of seminars on minorities and the Constitution. It focused, according to planners, on such issues as the "undemocratic features of the original Constitution,'' and the way the amendment process has broadened the rights of minorities and women.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is developing a new 8th-grade American history curriculum that will stress the multicultural heritage of the country, according to Allan Shoal, coordinator of social studies for the district.

While the bicentennial has provided the spark for many of these events, many would have gone on in other years, some officials suggested.

"I can't imagine studying American history without studying the Dred Scott decision or the 'three-fifths' compromise,'' said Washington's Ms. Aronson.

'Curious Ambivalence'

Led by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who has called the bicentennial of the Constitution a "civics lesson for all of us,'' schools have become a focal point for the commemoration of the document's 200th anniversary.

National organizations, such as the American Bar Association and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, have sponsored essay contests, produced curricular materials, and held workshops for teachers. In addition, many states and school districts have revised their curricula and textbooks to place a greater emphasis on the Constitution. (See Education Week, Sept. 17, 1986.)

But the official celebrations have so far not reflected what the Yale University historian Edmund S. Morgan has called the "curious ambivalence in American attitudes toward the Constitution and its framers.''

Chief Justice Burger, who resigned from the Supreme Court to head the national Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, has consistently highlighted the importance of the work of the Founding Fathers. But only recently have critical voices, like that of Justice Marshall, gained prominence.

Mr. Marshall has argued that the "true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life, a life nurtured through two turbulent centuries of our own making, and a life embodying much good fortune that was not.''

And he has urged that the bicentennial be a celebration of "a living document,'' not necessarily its first draft.

"I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever 'fixed' at the Philadelphia Convention,'' Justice Marshall said in his May speech to patent lawyers. "Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound.''

'Not Static'

School officials echo some of Mr. Marshall's themes.

"Let's celebrate the Constitution,'' said Harold Kessler, director of the division of social studies for the School District of Philadelphia, "but let's look at some of the things that were happening in American society in 1787. Let's look at where we've come from there. Let's look at where we are going.''

"It's not a static document, nor was it intended to be,'' he said. "That's why Article V [which provides the mechanism for amendment] is in there.''

Charlotte Frank, executive director of the New York City Board of Education's division of curriculum and instruction, said that the original document may be irrelevant to students who would have been excluded from its protections.

"We have said, 'It is important to recognize that, at the time of the Constitution, most of the people in New York City schools would not have been eligible to vote,'' Ms. Frank said.

She noted that the original Constitution condoned slavery, although it never used that word, and counted slaves as three-fifths of persons. In addition, she noted, women and the poor were ineligible to vote 200 years ago.

By focusing on the amendments added since that time, which have extended the document's protections to those originally excluded, students can draw on their own experiences to understand the Constitution, said Samuel L. Banks, supervisor of social studies for the Baltimore City Schools.

Next September, students in Baltimore schools will be debating whether "equal justice under law,'' as promised in the 14th Amendment, is a reality, he said, and whether the Constitution needs to be changed.

But to Robert R. Spillane, superintendent of the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, all students need also to be given a basic understanding of the Constitution as the foundation of the American system of government. The fact that the Constitution's framers omitted rights for many Americans, he said, "is no reason not to celebrate the bicentennial.''

"As imperfect a document as it is,'' he added, "it is, in fact, the fundamental base on which our democracy continues to flourish.''

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