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U. Va. law professor explains Constitution in first of Vision Series

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Trixie Haddon | The Breeze

A.E. Dick Howard spoke about the importance and relevance of civic duty among citizens on Constitution Day.


The inaugural Madison Vision Series kicked off on Tuesday— Constitution day— in celebration of James Madison’s contribution to our country.

A.E. Dick Howard, law professor at U. Va., lectured to about 150 students, faculty and community members in the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts concert hall on the importance of civic education and duty among our nation’s youth.

“We want you to internalize the civic lessons you’ve learned,” Howard said.

President Jon Alger introduced Howard, and urged the JMU community to explore our current civic landscape, and improve it.

“We have a long standing tradition at JMU,” Alger said. “We exercise public discourse, which helps shape us into the university that we are today.”

Alger said it’s essential that JMU lead the way in cultivating and educating the citizens that are ruled by the U.S. Constitution. The first step is educating JMU about these rules.

“We believe that we are taking a step in the right direction with this Vision Series,” Alger said. “What better way to spend Constitution Day than with Dr. Howard who has helped write many constitutions himself.”

Howard served on the committee that drafted Virginia’s current state constitution, and helped write national constitutions in over ten foreign countries, namely: Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Romania and the Philippines. All of the constitutions he helped create relate to the U.S. Constitution.

“Constitutional relevance to other countries doesn’t lie in the text of our own constitution,” Howard said. “It lies in the underlying principles, which transcend cultural and language barriers.”

While in Russia, after the Cold War, Howard and his colleagues found it difficult at times to overcome the language barrier because of the technical jargon that goes into writing a constitution.

“Constitutions are not just a fill-in-the-blank card,” Howard said. “Each country’s culture and language and history is different, and their constitutions have to reflect those differences.”

Howard shared many other anecdotes, beginning in Pennsylvania in the late 18th century during the creation of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

According to Howard, during the French Revolution the French watched the United States closely, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin believed that they should bring America to France. He said that public discourse in the late eighteenth century United States framed the constitutional debate in France, which eventually led the French to be an ally of the United States today.

Each anecdote helped structure the themes of the lecture series: promoting public discourse, educating our personal responsibilities and supporting ethics.

“Today is an important hallmark for the future of our university,” Alger said. “Not just because it is Constitution Day, but also because we can be the role model to improve our society, our university, ourselves.”

Bill Wilson, the director of Madison Institution and coordinator of the Vision Series, said that one of the key goals of the higher education at JMU is to create enlightened and educated students.

“As a liberal arts university, we want to be more than a mechanism for getting a job,” Wilson said. “We feel like having an understanding of government and civic duty is important, and this specific lecture highlights that.”

Four other lectures will take place throughout the year, each focusing on a different “Contemporary Issue in an Engaged Society.” Two more are scheduled this semester and two in the spring.

Sophomore business management major Jacob Hurd agrees that the lecture series is a step in the right direction, and he also urges his fellow classmates to become more involved.

“I want to see more students taking advantage of these opportunities,” Hurd said. “Too often we as college students don’t soak up all that our universities have to offer.”

He also said that without the students engaging in the conversations that these lectures start, our growth as a university is stymied.

Sophomore English and political science double major Chris Medrano thinks that the opening lecture of the Vision Series is a step in the right direction for JMU as well.

“George Mason’s quote that Dr. Howard mentioned at the end,” Medrano said, “about returning to the principles of the Constitution. I agree with him. The principles are what we as a community need to focus on.”

The same principles that Howard said cross cultural boundaries, and can help link foreign countries together.

Wilson said that the Vision Series’ ultimate focus is on personal responsibility, ethics, and public discourse, however he stressed the desire to reach out to more than just political science or history majors.

“I would encourage all our students to take the ride with this series,” Wilson said. “Each lecture may not feature a well known speaker, but their content will be relevant to our lives here at JMU, and to our society.”

Contact Mark Overstreet at overstma@dukes.jmu.edu.

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Trixie Haddon | The Breeze

A.E. Dick Howard spoke about the importance and relevance of civic duty among citizens on Constitution Day.