Monday, May 30, 2011

The Bill of Rights - How Should we teach it?

It seems that the empty rhetoric of freedom that is trotted out every Memorial Day is meant by the system to distract us from what is to be done to ensure that all live in a state of freedom. We always hear about how freedom isn't free, especially when it comes to Memorial Day, and we always hear about how the soldiers died to protect our freedoms. Yet as Redalicious, a friend of mine notes, our soldiers are not seeming to fight against institutionalized oppression in our very shores...Our soldiers are being sent overseas and for what? Now don't get me wrong, I am not criticizing our troops...but rather our leaders who send them overseas and play chess with their lives with the cavalier attitude of those who do not have to risk life and limb facing enemy fire...

Yet, let us examine what freedom means and how it is presented with respect to the curriculum and standards our students have to deal with.

How is freedom presented in our curriculum and standards? Is it presented as a continuing and ongoing struggle or is it presented as a relic of the past, a paean to past heroes who died to make us free such as Dr. King? Do we view the contradictions between our noble rhetoric and our support of dictators overseas who kowtow to corporate interests? How do we reconcile our ugly chapter of imperialism overseas which is continuing to this very day to the rhetoric that if it weren't for our soldiers, we wouldn't be free to express controversial views which are maligned by the very same people who say that we have the right to say these views? How do we reconcile the fact that institutional oppression still exists in this country with the rhetoric of freedom that seems to be brought out from under the carpet in this Memorial Day? Gay people cannot get married, can be fired in 30+ states just for being gay, women face institutional sexism and misogyny, especially when it comes to sexual crimes and health care, Muslims are being demonized by politicians seeking to milk the issue of "national security" for political gain...people of Latino background are being demonized by those who want to close our  borders, People are being demonized into threats so that we stay divided and conquered, while those in high positions of power laugh to the bank with our taxpayer dollars...

Students should question the rhetoric of our leaders, especially in an era when propaganda and the concept of American exceptionalism is being used to justify imperialistic ventures overseas and to try to snuff out freedom movements around the world. Students should question the double standards we hold in our foreign policy. For example, we are using the rhetoric of freedom and liberation to justify bombing Libya to shreds while walking a fine line at best in Bahrain where protesters are being massacred in the streets. Yet we say how Gaddafi is massacring his own citizens as if that is our motive in overthrowing him. Yet the same thing is happening in Bahrain and we have stayed rather silent, with admonishing here and there that is viewed as impotent and without force in the leadership of Bahrain. Students should question the rhetoric of those who espouse freedom, but continue oppression when it comes to their policies regarding gay marriage or even poverty.

Students should question the materials and textbooks that they have been given that sanitizes our country's hypocrisy when it comes to freedom and its commitment to civil liberties. Take for example, the Patriot Act. Why shouldn't students examine it and raise the question on whether the act itself is an infringement on our civil liberties? How is surveillance supposed to keep us safe from so-called threats from aboard and who is being targeted? How can we protect ourselves from a government that might abuse the provisions of the act far beyond the bill's intent? What this lesson plan from a Teachable Moment does is to personalize the Patriot Act by asking students to imagine if the government suspected that THEY were terrorists. What it goes on to do is to examine three instances of a government curtailing civil liberties in a time of warfare from Abraham Lincoln, whom we should not forget suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus and ignored a Supreme Court decision that sought to rein him in to Fred Korematsu contesting Japanese-American internment.

Take civics for example...A college textbook that I am reading currently states that high school civic courses are meant to educate students on the workings of our system of government rather than to critique the contradictions between lofty rhetoric and freedom. For example, students are to learn...

Standard 12.2 - Students evaluate and take and defend positions on the scope and limits of
rights and obligations as democratic citizens, the relationships among them,
and how they are secured.
1. Discuss the meaning and importance of each of the rights guaranteed under the Bill
of Rights and how each is secured (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly,
petition, privacy).
2. Explain how economic rights are secured and their importance to the individual and
to society (e.g., the right to acquire, use, transfer, and dispose of property; right to
choose one’s work; right to join or not join labor unions; copyright and patent).

Now all of this seems fine and all, but how can we as teachers stretch these standards to encompass a critical view of the material that we work with? For example, is it not inadequate that we only discuss the meaning and importance of the Bill of Rights? Questions that can be asked when examining the Bill of Rights...(I like to question students and have them express their viewpoints when I teach)

  • What about blatant examples where those rights supposedly enshrined in the Constitution have been violated by those in high positions in power? 
  • When it comes to the Bill of Rights, has our government or those in authority done an adequate job in guaranteeing our rights as enshrined in the Constitution?
  • How is the curtailment of our civil liberties justified and are those justifications valid or not?
What about our schools? Where are the standards that talk about the Bill of Rights when it pertains to the schools that our students reside in for a quarter of a day? Would it not be common sense that the school should be one of the first places to examine whether students' constitutional rights are being respected?
  • Do school rules encourage or inhibit one's freedom of speech and if so, what is the justification given? 
  • What kinds of speech are limited in the schools? 
  • Is the justification sufficient enough to curtail that kind of speech?
  • Why are the rights of students limited by administrators and are they a violation of the First Amendment?
  • What recourse do students have when they feel that their rights have been violated?
  • Why does the Supreme Court tell us that students "shed their constitutional rights when they enter the classroom door?"
  • Who benefits from the Supreme Court's notion?

How can we as high school teachers encourage civic participation by making it meaningful to our students when it has been shown that senators and representatives do not acknowledge the needs of anyone other than the extremely wealthy? How can we as high school teachers encourage students to take on an active role if our standards discourage this by obscuring the protest movements from the people that have forced the hand of those in power to bring about change?

Our standards need to go beyond explaining and discussing, for it is not enough to present a  factual-based curriculum for our students. It only serves to  turn them off and to encourage passivity and complacency. People died and suffered for their freedoms...whether they were women suffrage activists who threw themselves under the king of England's horse or they were brave African-Americans who paid the ultimate price in defending their right to cast a vote without infringement or harassment. We focus so much on Dr. King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and so on, but without the unnamed masses behind them to bolster their movements with a show of numbers, they may not have won the successes that they have been credited with. Yet, if we are only asked to identify leaders and discuss their importance, how are students supposed to learn that they  too are agents of change that can strike at the heart of the structure that limits their ability to function as agents?

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