The Brookings Institute recently launched an initiative called ConText, dedicated to promoting the study of what Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, calls “the most important document in American history that nobody ever reads”: James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. The Context website features the text of Notes at the center of the page, surrounded by columns dedicated to Wikipedia-style crowd-sourced commentary, all in an effort at dynamic, participatory engagement with the centuries old text.
The site’s creators make a fascinating appeal to precedent for this sort of initiative: The Talmud. Wittes explains:
The Talmud is a series of debates—and commentaries on those debates—on a text called the Mishnah. The rabbis found an ingenious way of commenting on this dry, lengthy text in a language (Ancient Hebrew) which was already in Roman times no longer their vernacular (they spoke and wrote in Aramaic). On a page of Talmud, a passage of Mishnah is physically surrounded by layers of commentary text, more and more of them as the centuries wore on. So in the center of the page is a short passage, by tradition, of course, Divine, but often in practice dry as dust; yet radiating out from that passage is centuries of wisdom and thought. It is not merely a form of crowd-sourced scholarship, but it is a visual means of expressing that scholarship and crowd-sourcing that seemed to me to have broad application to the exposition of lengthy and difficult historical texts like the Notes.
Organized like the Talmud, ConText surrounds the Notes with layers of commentary—commentary on the history (what was going on in the room), current events (how these events relate to current politics), theoretical and philosophical issues, and subsequent constitutional interpretation and dispute.
It looks to be a valuable project, and I for one am glad (and more than a little tickled) to see the dynamic intellectual spirit of the Talmud inspiring the contemporary thinking public.