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 Montpelier Magazine

1998 National Teacher of the Year Phil Bigler was named director during the James Madison Day Convocation

Winning teacher says future center
will bring Madison to the masses

Last fall, when the nation was mired in the bickering over close votes, recounts and electoral college debates of the 2000 presidential election, the last things the media and the public needed were speculations, misinformation and misconceptions of what the Constitution says about determining close elections. What they really needed was a Constitutional expert - someone like James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

While that obviously wasn't possible, Phil Bigler ('74, '76M), former National Teacher of the Year and the newly appointed director of the James Madison Center, thinks JMU should offer the next best thing - a center that has the scholars, research and academic clout to provide that expertise.

Bigler, whose appointment was announced by President Linwood H. Rose at the James Madison Day Convocation on March 16, wants the Madison Center to become "the expert on the Constitution" in the eyes of national and state media. He wants the center to become a renowned source of accurate information and expertise on Constitutional matters too.

It only makes sense. Madison was one of the "greatest governmental thinkers in American history," says Bigler, who hopes the the center will bring Madison into the historical prominence he deserves. "I want James Madison to be to JMU what Jefferson is to U.Va.," he says.

It will take effort, resources and determination to bring the diminutive, pragmatic Madison into the national spotlight as one of - if not the greatest - craftsman of the U.S. Constitution. But Bigler sees the James Madison Center as playing a crucial role in providing information on what Madison did and thought and also on who he was.

In their lifetimes, Madison and Jefferson often complemented each other, says Bigler. "Jefferson tended to be more radical. Madison brought him back to center." While Jefferson was considered a great thinker, Madison was "the great pragmatist. He understood the nature of people," Bigler adds.

The center's first goal will be to heighten awareness on JMU's campus of Madison's contributions to American history and government, Bigler believes. He hopes to form a student committee to work closely with the center on programs, activities and academics "so Madison becomes part of the JMU culture." Putting more emphasis on Madison during freshman orientation will also "make students more aware of the university's epo-nym." Expanding the use of the center's Web site and the Internet will bring Madison's words, thoughts and works to an even greater audience.

"Ultimately," the director says, "we want to have a Madison expert on faculty - an endowed chair. We're looking at a top-notch scholar coming to JMU."

A teacher for 23 years, Big-ler feels a kinship and loyalty to public education that he plans to demonstrate through the center's commitment to public schools. This summer JMU will be a host site for a teacher institute called "We the People," which will focus on the Constitution and Madison's role in crafting it. Through similar institutes, workshops and programs, Bigler hopes to "hook educators and all their students on Madison."

A first step in that educational outreach may be to identify those public schools in Virginia named after Madison and start outreach programs and partnerships with them. He also wants the center to become an educational resource for all teachers and the impetus for hands-on educational activities such as a mock Constitutional Convention where student representatives debate and possibly amend the Constitution for the 21st century.

The new director believes the James Madison Center's focus on educating the public complements the fourth president. "Madison believed education of the general populace was necessary and important to the survival of the republic," he says.

In the information revolution of today, people are bombarded with "so many sources of information and entertainment that they often no longer feel compelled to be civically aware," Bigler laments. As the events of last fall showed, too often Americans have the opinion that "I don't care what the Constitution says. This is what I think should happen."

Through Bigler's vision at the helm of the Madison Center, people will easily be able to find out what the Constitution says. And rather than not caring, people will appreciate the vision and pragmatism of a quiet, small man with huge ideas - a man once known as The Great Little Madison.

By Margie Shetterly