Panel dissects Constitution
“We are here today because of Senator Robert Byrd,” said Harry Hirsch, dean of the College, at the opening of Tuesday’s Constitution Day panel.
Hirsch explained that Byrd was largely responsible for passing recent legislation requiring all federally-funded schools to sponsor a forum on the U.S. Constitution on or near its birthday, Sept. 17.
“At some point in the future we may want to debate federal mandates,” continued Hirsch. “But today we’re here to discuss the merits of the Constitution.”
According to history professor Pablo Mitchell, Oberlin was the only forum in the state to host the mandated panel.
The panelists proceeded to do so, often spiritedly. While they presented a diverse and sometimes conflicting range of ideas about the Constitution, the sentiments likely would have surprised Byrd, who on his website described the Constitution as “both the foundation and guardian of our liberties.”
Mitchell, who also teaches in the comparative American studies department, spoke about the Constitution and its relation to race. He questioned its relevancy for our current political times, comparing it to Vioxx — a product, he said, “which works for a little while and then breaks down.”
“The Constitution was a pre-modern document,” said Mitchell. “Reading it now — it’s a little musty.”
Mitchell, a self-described skeptic, went on to say that the Constitution’s only utility in regard to race was as a historical document.
Harlan Wilson, professor of politics, spoke of the way in which the Constitution generates power for the national government. He said that in the way it treats power, the Constitution is not a democratic document.
Wilson did not go so far as to say that the Constitution is invalid. Instead, he suggested that the Constitution be considered as more than a written document.
“The Constitution can be a way of life in which the written Constitution, federalism, political institutions, political economy and culture are all factors,” he said.
Nancy Dye, Oberlin College president and professor of history, spoke about modern-day interpretations of the Constitution as it applies to immigrant’s rights and laws concerning terrorism.
“The government’s weapon of choice in the home-front war on terror is to use immigration law to arrest and detain anyone who looks suspicious,” said Dye.
Dye spoke critically about the government’s use of this law.
“We are fast becoming a nation who treats immigrant persons differently before the law,” she said.
The other two panelists did not analyze the Constitution directly; their lectures focused on law and its relation to modern society.
Ronald Kahn, James Monroe professor of politics and law, discussed the implications of John Roberts becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Kahn described Roberts as being “above the ideological right and left” and a man of “credibility and intellectual honesty.”
“The position of chief justice will have a moderating effect on Roberts,” said Kahn. “The traditions of the court will mean something to him.”
Kahn predicted that while Roberts will have little effect on individual cases in the short run, he will significantly impact constitutional law in the long run.
“Roberts will not create major change, but he will also not be a force for major backward change,” said Kahn.
Wendy Kozol, associate professor of gender and women’s studies, discussed the problems of national and international law regarding women’s rights. She argued that this legislation tends to view women in a limited sense that can further perpetuate stereotypical ways of seeing women.
“We all want justice for women,” said Kozol, “but we see different ways of attaining it.”
While it was clear at the forum that many students and professors at Oberlin
do not love the Constitution, most were not ready to leave it entirely.