Scholars explore American Constitution


MIT faculty research on the roots and future reach of the U.S. Constitution -- from a renowned historian's new book on how the Constitution was originally ratified to a media scholar's study of how rights of free expression relate to video games such as Grand Theft Auto -- bring Constitution Day, Sept. 17, to life on campus.

Two days before, on Sept. 15, Daniel Weitzner, Technology and Society Domain Leader, World Wide Web Consortium, will present a lecture, "The Internet Meets the Constitution," from 2 to 5 p.m. in room 34-304. His talk will be captured so it can be streamed on demand.

Weiztner's talk is one session in a course, "The Law and the Electronic Frontier," taught by Harold Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

For those who don't know, Constitution Day honors the date 218 years ago when four months of snappish debate among delegates produced the handwritten four-page document beginning "We, the People," that still defines the powers of the U.S. government, the powers of the states, the rights of the people and how representatives of the people should be elected.

According to Pauline Maier, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History, the 1787 signing ceremony in Independence Hall, Philadephia, was a short break in an often bitter battle.

"Most Americans, I suspect, think George Washington was inaugurated a couple of weeks after the constitutional convention adjourned. They have no idea that there was a long, sometimes tense process of ratification that might well have turned out differently," Maier said.

Maier is writing a book on the contentious ratification process, an "immensely complex event, in 13 different states, with different casts of characters in each, and an enormous documentary record."

"When seen through its historical roots, the Constitution becomes much more understandable as a human creation -- even a human technology," she said.

MIT faculty in history, political science, media studies and computer science provide students here with innovative ways to study the Constitution and to appreciate it as a robust and resilient "technology."

Charles Stewart III, department head and professor of political science, is the author of "Analyzing Congress." Stewart starts his undergraduate course on the U.S. Congress with a study of the Constitutional Convention.

"Studying the convention requires us to study what the Constitution overthrew, which was the Articles of Confederation. The articles were predicated on a strong sense that the states were sovereign and that national politics was legitimate only when the states volunteered to cooperate. It was a disaster. Studying the Constitution when studying Congress allows me to reflect with my students on how NOT to write a Constitution," he said.

Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of political science, is currently working with James Snyder, professor of political science, on a project on equal representation in the United States.

"Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren described the Baker v. Carr decision that led to equal representation as the most important of his court -- more important than Brown v. Board of Education," Ansolabehere said, referring to the landmark 1954 decision that struck down school segregation in Kansas.

Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program and professor of literature, is at work on a book called "Convergence Culture." Jenkins has testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on issues of free expression and on the role of media in society.

"Convergence" argues that the "various clauses of the First Amendment -- the rights to speech, press, assembly, petition and religion -- collectively constitute a right to participate in our culture. The outcome of current struggles over media control will determine what the First Amendment means in the 21st century," Jenkins said.

Jenkins has also been involved in contemporary debates over media censorship.

"Computer and video games are most under fire now. Rockstar Games' 'Grand Theft Auto' is an important example of the current debate. On the one hand, many feel it constitutes a threat to the civil order, encouraging violence and racism. On the other hand, many defend 'Grand Theft Auto' as a test case for free expression, as protected by the Constitution," he said.

David Thorburn, professor of literature, teaches courses on modern literature and on television. Students in his advanced seminar, "Joyce and the Legacy of Modernism," read and discuss Judge John Woolsey's 1933 decision to allow publication of James Joyce's controversial 1922 novel, "Ulysses." The book had been banned as obscene.

"We discuss the judge's criteria, exploring how standards of what is acceptable change so radically from era to era," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 14, 2005 (download PDF).


Topics: Political science, Special events and guest speakers

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