Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Vacation at Home: The National Constitution Center

So this week, I'm on vacation, and I'm spending it here in Philly. In addition to catching up on sleep, socializing as much and as late as I want, and so on, I decided to visit some of the city's big tourist attractions. First stop was the National Constitution Center.

The building is quite beautiful - and aggressively air-conditioned. I was cold the entire time. Anyway, your tour starts with a 20- to 30-minute-long presentation in the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?-esque Kimmel Theater called (cue dramatic orchestra) "Freedom Rising". It's narrated by an actor, thankfully not in period garb, and is interrupted occasionally by pre-recorded actor's voices (usually representing 18th- or 19th-century Americans, some famous, others generic), news footage, and, of course, dramatic music. On the whole, it's not a bad crash course on U.S. history and civics, though it does verge on the jingoistic at times. But I'll admit, I got chills at one point, and it does make you want to get out of there and start learning about the Constitution, which is really the point after all.

After the presentation is over, you proceed upstairs and into the main exhibit hall. It's not a huge space, but there are lots of things to listen to, watch, and interact with. It progresses chronologically from the colonial era to the present, and chronicles the major points during U.S. history that have tested the Constitution and the nation. I particularly liked the "Can You Vote In (Year)?" screens scattered throughout the timeline - we tend to forget how limited our democracy once was (and, arguably, still is) - and the desk where you can learn about the judicial branch. (The geek in me was particularly pleased to have recognized a court reporter's rendering of a young, tan Antonin Scalia hearing Johnson v. Texas.) The last room has bronze statues of the signers of the Constitution, which are alarmingly lifelike.

But the icing on the cake (the Bill of Rights on the Constitution?) was finding the following children's books in the gift shop:

While I'm not sure that "Quit Bossing Us Around!" and "I Want To Go To School!" are the most accurate one-sentence summaries of the Declaration of Independence or Brown v. Board, I like the idea of this series. I propose the additional titles Get Off My Property!: The Fourth Amendment and I Want To Get Married!: Loving v. Virginia.

In all seriousness, though, I think visiting the NCC should be required for all Americans. It is a wonderful encapsulation of our history and government, and it beautifully illustrates that the power in our nation ultimately lies with the people.


Justin said...

I've been reading a book of collected essays based around the theme of American libertarian ideals (don't worry, I'm not joining the Libertarian party), including Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Emerson (so far), and it really is amazing how much they kept the notion of the mutable state in their minds. If they speak of government as a monolith, it is to indicate that that thing should not exist, rather than casually regarding the Washington bureaucracy as a thing which we are powerless to change, which seems to be a more pervasive attitude these days.

J.Ro said...

Hands down best line from "Freedom Rising":

"And Elvis—the only king America would ever know."