Op Ed: What Will Your Kids Study on Bill of Rights Day?

December 24, 2020

This op. ed was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 15, 2015.

Today is Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the day in 1791 when the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified by the states. As a matter of law, it is “observed” — casually at best, in most cases — on Dec. 15 of each year.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in signing the proclamation in 1941 creating the observance, said, “It is fitting that the anniversary of its adoption should be remembered by the Nation which … has enjoyed the immeasurable privileges which that charter guaranteed: the privileges of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the free right to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”

These “privileges,” as FDR called them, are essential to the American way of life, but the current generation, as we are seeing on college campuses from coast to coast, doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate the Bill of Rights.

This should come as little surprise since today’s high school students, who in a few years will take their place on those same college campuses, also don’t understand U.S. government and history. The Bill of Rights? Who cares?

The woeful inadequacy of our secondary schools was clearly in evidence this spring when the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores in history and civics were released.

Of the nearly 29,000 eighth-grade students tested last year as part of the NAEP assessment program, only 18 percent were deemed “proficient” or better in history, and only 23 percent in civics, or government.

Eighty percent of these students, for example, were unable to identify an historical controversy that involved any of the rights identified in the First Amendment. To assist them, the text of the Amendment was provided.

The problem is not just the valleys in the test scores but also the lack of peaks. Only 1 percent of students performed at the “advanced” level on the history exam and 2 percent on the civics test.

Twelfth-graders weren’t tested in 2014. But the last time they were tested, in 2010, their scores were little better.

If U.S. high school students don’t understand the meaning and importance of free speech, freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly and other such constitutionally guaranteed “privileges,” how can we expect them to affirm and defend them as college students and adults?

Many people are quick to blame teachers for the shortcomings of America’s schools. I don’t buy that.

America’s 125,000 social studies teachers should not be made into scapegoats.

In the 17 years I’ve been with the Ashbrook Center, some 8,000 teachers from across the country have participated in our programs. I’ve had ample opportunity to interact with them and know from firsthand experience they’re not the problem.

The problem is the way teachers are trained. Teachers spend too much time learning the mechanics of teaching and not enough time learning what to teach.

Without a major change in how teachers are taught, America will continue down the same path, raising generation after generation of students who don’t understand what it means to be an American, who equate freedom of speech with “selfies,” who believe freedom of religion requires purging religion from the public square, who think our Founding Fathers — denigrated as dead old white men — are irrelevant.

To successfully teach U.S. history and government, so students understand and appreciate the principles that define the American character, teachers need to rely less on textbooks and more on the writings and thinking of those who shaped our country.

A good place to start would be to read the Bill of Rights — and discuss the text and how it applies to our everyday lives.

That’s how students learn.