When Mike Quinn moved to James Madison’s Montpelier, he had a vision. As president of the Montpelier Foundation and executive director of James Madison’s Montpelier, he believed that historical sites should serve as places of education.
“They have a significant connection to places and events of the past,” Quinn said.
As such, one of the first tasks he tackled was to institute the Center for Constitutional Studies at Montpelier. He spent a considerable amount of time finding the right person to direct the program. Quinn found that person in Will Harris, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Harris created three different seminars — “A Constitution — What is It?” “A Bill of Rights — What is it?” and “Citizenship — What is it?”
Each seminar was designed to be held over a weekend with teachers receiving lodging on the grounds of the estate. All expenses, including travel, are paid by the Center, thanks to support from private donors, including Northern Virginia philanthropist Robert H. Smith.
“The American nation was not founded on race, geography or religion. It was founded on an idea — an idea that is articulated in the Constitution, and that’s why we need to teach the Constitution,” Quinn said. “All citizens are required to uphold the Constitution. The way to teach students is to better prepare the teachers.”
TWO LOCAL TEACHERS, William Rhatican and Eric Henderson, have already had the opportunity to experience this seminar.
“It’s the best-kept secret,” said Henderson, history teacher and football coach at West Potomac. “It was fantastic. It’s one of the best things I’ve done to enhance my teaching. I have to go back.”
Teachers are currently only allowed to sign up for one course so that all teachers can partake in the experience; however Henderson is currently on a waiting list to be called in case of a cancellation.
“Most other workshops are on methodology — this was pure content,” Henderson said. “It was good; I haven’t been exposed to that much since graduate school.”
Rhatican, another history teacher from West Potomac, said, “I was very impressed with the Center for Constitutional Studies program at James Madison's Montpelier. I attended the weekend seminar last December (2003) and found it fascinating. First, the mansion, which had not yet been gutted for renovations, was the site of our meetings. What a location! To sit in the very room where Madison discussed with Jefferson and others the concept of our Constitution was breath-taking.”
RHATICAN ENJOYED roaming the manicured grounds of the estate, which he thought was “awe-inspiring.” He also felt that staying on the property (in guest houses) was a privilege. Rhatican said that he and the other teachers felt so comfortable that one of the days that the mansion was opened to tourists, the teachers there, including him, considered the tourists as interlopers, breaking into their “private domain. That was the grandeur of the setting.”
“As for the program itself, Professor Harris lectured each day, walking us through Madison's thoughts on the then-uncreated Constitution. Harris pointed out, for example, that Madison attempted to accommodate the anti-federalists and bring in all Americans to the concept of freedom. He accepted the Bill of Rights as a ‘buffer zone’ or bulwark against totalitarianism — a real fear in the early national days.
“Harris established the true and meaningful accomplishments of Madison ... while we were there in the mansion where it happened. I am really enthusiastic about their program for teachers and would (and have) recommended it to government and US History colleagues across the county.”