ERIC Identifier: ED298076
Publication Date: 1988-10-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching the Bill of Rights. ERIC Digest.
The two-hundredth anniversary of the federal Bill of Rights in 1991 is the
culmination of a multi-year bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution.
It is also a special occasion for renewal and improvement of education on core
values and principles in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The great importance of the Bill of Rights in the civic life of Americans
justifies placing great emphasis on this document in the curriculum of schools.
And effective teaching and learning about the Bill of Rights are required to
prepare young Americans for citizenship in their constitutional democracy. This
ERIC Digest examines education about the Bill of Rights in schools: (1) the
status of it, (2) deficiencies in it, and (3) means to improve it.
WHAT IS TAUGHT ABOUT THE BILL OF RIGHTS IN
Understanding of the Bill of Rights is an important part of
education for responsible citizenship in the United States, as indicated by
curriculum guides and standard textbooks in American history, government, and
civics. Constitutional rights and liberties are emphasized in statements of
goals for education in the social studies published by local school districts,
state-level departments of education, and the National Assessment for
Educational Progress (1988, 12-13).
Most Americans have studied the Bill of Rights at least four times in
school--(1) in a fifth-grade American studies course, (2) in a junior
high/middle school American history course, (3) in a high school American
history course, and (4) in a high school American government or civics course.
In addition, a growing number of students learn about Bill of Rights concepts
and issues through special units or elective courses in law-related education.
These formal courses of study expose students to ideas in the Bill of Rights as
well as the document's origin and development, and it's relevance to citizenship
and government in the United States.
Despite these ample opportunities for education on the Bill of Rights, many
Americans have failed to learn or retain important knowledge, values, and
attitudes about constitutional rights and liberties, as revealed by various
studies of the past twenty-five years (Hearst Report 1987; Quigley et al. 1987;
Ravitch and Finn 1987; Elam 1984; NAEP 1983; McCloskey and Brill 1983; Remmers
and Franklin 1963).
WHAT ARE MAJOR DEFICIENCIES IN LEARNING ABOUT THE BILL OF
RIGHTS? DEFICIENCIES IN CIVIC LEARNING PERTAIN TO
-- ignorance of the content and
meaning of the Bill of
-- civic intolerance in application of constitutional
liberties and rights;
-- misunderstanding of the federal judiciary's role in
regard to Bill of Rights issues;
-- inability to rationally analyze and judge Bill of Rights
1. There is widespread ignorance about the content and meaning of the Bill of
Rights. A recent nation-wide survey of the Hearst Corporation found that a
majority of American adults do not know that the Bill of Rights is "the first 10
amendments to the original Constitution" (1987, 13). By contrast, a 1987 study
by the Center for Civic Education (CCE) showed that most high school students
did know that the Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the Constitution
and that its purpose is "to list and guarantee individual rights" (Quigley et
al. 1987, 3). However, the students in its sample were misinformed about
specific constitutional rights and ignorant of the meaning, history, and
application of key concepts, such as due process of law, freedom of expression,
and freedom of religion. Results of the National Assessment of Educational
Progress have also shown glaring gaps in secondary school students' knowledge of
the Constitution in general and civil rights and liberties in particular (NAEP
1983; Ravitch and Finn 1987).
2. Public attitudes about the Bill of Rights are generally positive, but
support for certain liberties and rights tends to markedly decline when they are
applied to cases involving unpopular minority groups or individuals. Numerous
studies from the 1950s to the 1980s have confirmed this finding (McCloskey and
Brill 1983). The Purdue Youth Opinion Polls of the 1950s found a large
proportion of American high school students to be "authoritarian" in their
attitudes toward the Bill of Rights, because they tended to oppose application
of certain civil rights and liberties to blacks, communists, atheists, and other
unpopular minority groups or individuals (Remmers and Franklin 1963, 61-72).
Adolescents of the 1980s were given the same statements about the Bill of Rights
used in the 1950s Purdue polls. An even greater proportion of these 1980s
teen-agers displayed authoritarian attitudes about certain constitutional rights
than the 1950s students. For example, a larger percentage of the 1980s students
were willing to allow a police search without a warrant, to deny legal counsel
to criminals, and to accept restrictions on religious freedom (Elam 1984).
3. High school students and adults tend to misunderstand the federal
judiciary's role in dealing with disputes about the meaning and application of
constitutional rights. In the Center for Civic Education study, most students
had misconceptions about judicial review and were unaware of the perennial
conflict between judicial review and majority rule (Quigley et al. 1987, 5).
These conclusions were paralleled by the Hearst Report which also found that
about half of the adult respondents misconceived the role and powers of the
Supreme Court in our constitutional system of separated powers and checks and
balances (1987, 23-26). Michael Kammen's history of the Constitution in American
culture documents the long-standing public ambivalence to and misunderstanding
of the Supreme Court's role in protecting individual rights against the
potential tyranny of majority rule (1986, 357-380).
4. Most high school seniors seem unprepared to define, analyze, and evaluate
Bill of Rights issues. Lack of knowledge is an obvious obstacle to defensible
deliberation and discourse about constitutional issues. If students cannot
recognize and comprehend their rights in the U.S. Constitution, then they
certainly will not be able to cogently reflect upon them. Research of the past
twenty-five years indicates that most adolescents are incapable of high-level
cognitive ability when thinking about legal or moral issues of the kind raised
by controversies over constitutional rights. In their report on the 1986 NAEP
study of students' knowledge of history, Ravitch and Finn conclude: "...many of
the most profound issues of contemporary society...have their origins and their
defining events in the evolving drama of the Constitution. Yet our youngsters do
not know enough about that drama, either in general or in specific terms, to
reflect on or think critically about its meaning" (1987, 58).
HOW CAN EDUCATION ON THE BILL OF RIGHTS BE IMPROVED? Research about teaching
strategies and civic learning suggests that understanding of Bill of Rights
concepts and issues and positive attitudes about the paradoxical ideals of a
constitutional democracy (such as a majority rule with minority rights), can be
achieved by most secondary school students. Tested teaching strategies involve:
-- systematic teaching of Bill of Rights concepts;
-- case studies on Bill of Rights issues;
-- examination and discussion of issues in an open
1. Teach core concepts systematically through a rule-example-application
strategy. This manner of teaching and learning constitutional concepts is
exemplified in LESSONS ON THE CONSTITUTION (Patrick and Remy 1985, 118-126). It
involves clear presentations of criteria that define a concept (rules), numerous
examples of the criteria, and activities that challenge students to apply the
defining criteria to organization and interpretation of new data and examples.
2. Teach Bill of Rights issues, and skills in analyzing and making judgments
about them, through case studies that vividly portray individuals in conflict
over these issues. This strategy has been used successfully in various
curriculum development projects from the 1960s through the 1980s (Oliver and
Shaver 1966; Patrick and Remy 1985). In particular, projects in law-related
education have emphasized lessons based on case studies and have documented the
instructional effectiveness of this strategy (Study Group on Law-Related
Education 1978). Research has determined, for example, that case study lessons
on constitutional rights issues have positively affected development of
students' attitudes toward minority rights (Patrick 1977).
3. Establish and maintain an open and supportive classroom environment in
which to examine and discuss Bill of Rights issues. If students feel free and
secure about expressing ideas on controversial topics, even if their ideas are
unusual or unpopular, they are more likely to develop positive attitudes about
Bill of Rights ideals and to learn high-level cognitive skills necessary to
responsible citizenship in a constitutional democracy (Leming 1985, 162-163).
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of
resources includes references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by
an ED number are in the ERIC system and are available in microfiche and paper
copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about
prices, contact EDRS, 3900 Wheeler Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia 22304; telephone
numbers are 703-823-0500 and 800-227-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number are
annotated monthly in CIJE (CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION) which is
available in most libraries. EJ documents are not available through EDRS;
however, they can be located in the journal section of most libraries by using
the bibliographic information provided below.
Elam, Stanley M. "Anti-Democratic
Attitudes of High School Students in the Orwell Year." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 65 (January 1984): 327-332. EJ 291 508.
Hearst Report. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC'S KNOWLEDGE OF
THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. New York: The Hearst Corporation, 1987. ED 289 812.
Justice, William Wayne. "Teaching the Bill of Rights." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 68 (October 1986): 154-157. EJ 341 182.
Kammen, Michael. A
MACHINE THAT WOULD GO OF ITSELF: THE CONSTITUTION IN AMERICAN CULTURE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
Leming, James S. "Research on Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction: Interventions and Outcomes in the Socio-Moral Domain," in REVIEW OF RESEARCH IN SOCIAL STUDIES EDUCATION: 1976-1983, edited by William B. Stanley. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1985. ED 255 469.
and Alida Brill. DIMENSIONS OF TOLERANCE: WHAT AMERICANS BELIEVE ABOUT CIVIL LIBERTIES. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1983.
National Assessment of Educational Progress.
CIVICS: UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT & POLITICS OBJECTIVES, 1988 ASSESSMENT. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1987. ED 287 875.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. CITIZENSHIP AND SOCIAL STUDIES ACHIEVEMENT OF YOUNG AMERICANS: 1981-82 PERFORMANCE AND CHANGES BETWEEN 1976 AND 1982. Denver: Education Commission of the States, 1983. ED 236 247.
Oliver, Donald W. and
James A. Shaver. TEACHING PUBLIC ISSUES IN THE HIGH SCHOOL. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
Patrick, John J. and Richard
C. Remy. LESSONS ON THE CONSTITUTION. Washington, DC: Project '87 of the American Historical Association and American Political Science Association, 1985. ED 258 891.
Patrick, John J. "Political Socialization and
Political Education in Schools," in HANDBOOK OF POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION: THEORY AND RESEARCH, edited by Stanley Allen Renshon. New York: The Free Press, 1977.
Quigley, Charles N. et al. PRELIMINARY REPORT ON HIGH
SCHOOL STUDENTS' KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING OF THE HISTORY AND PRINCIPLES OF THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION AND BILL OF RIGHTS. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1987.
Ravitch, Diane and Chester E.
Finn, Jr. WHAT DO OUR 17-YEAR-0LDS KNOW? A REPORT ON THE FIRST NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF
HISTORY AND LITERATURE. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Remmers, H. H. and
Richard D. Franklin. "Sweet Land of Liberty," in ANTI-DEMOCRATIC ATTITUDES IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS, edited byH. H. Remmers. Evanston: IL: Northwestern University Press, 1963.
Study Group on Law-Related Education. FINAL REPORT OF THE U.S. OFFICE OF EDUCATION STUDY GROUP ON LAW-RELATED
EDUCATION. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978. ED 175 737.