Recently, a discussion on one of the boards I follow turned to Civil Rights.
I asked Andrew if he would do me the honor of being my first guest lecturer. He agreed, and I am pleased to share with you his thoughts on teaching Civil Liberties.
Thoughts on Teaching Civil Liberties
Answers to these questions and others like them involve much more than memorizing the Bill of Rights and famous Supreme Court cases. They involve the foundational elements of our system of constitutional law.
The course description for Advanced Placement U.S. Government & Politics states that both Civil Rights and Civil Liberties together will comprise 5 – 15% of the multiple-choice questions on the AP exam. As a result, it is a challenge for a teacher to figure out how best to present those topics, given that relatively little time may be spent on it without compromising the vast majority of the rest of the course.
My last two semesters I tried something fairly unconventional. I think it worked all right for some students, but I’m not sure if I would do it the same way again. Sharing it might be useful for generating ideas. This isn’t a formal write-up of the unit by the way—just those elements that were key or unconventional (or both). My purpose, since there is so little time for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, was to have class discussion be at a higher level, while relying on students to read from the texts at home. Additionally, some of what I taught did not relate directly to the civil liberties content on the AP exam, but, to be honest, I have always considered myself first my students’ Government teacher, and second their AP Government test prep instructor. All told I spent about seven class days on Civil Liberties.
The “Four Freedoms”: Setting the Stage for Individual Rights.
After this beginning, I would continue in a more or less conventional way, with a focus on primary sources, such as the Bill of Rights, of course, as well as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and Federalist No. 84, among others.
Due Process of Law: The Foundation of Our Fundamental Rights. Maybe.
Then, I had students watch the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (here begins the unconventional part) and respond with a short informal essay about what is “fair and right and just”. We discussed their thoughts. The assignment permits them to reference the episode but they do not have to. Incidentally, if you haven't seen it, the episode is an allegory of McCarthyism.
Then we moved more to substantive due process, and we went back over Justice Harlan II's quote to refresh our memories: “[Due process] is a rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints . . . .” I would show them the Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” with a similar informal short essay assignment with discussion.
After that, we would look at a couple of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion cases, including the core ones, like the Gitlow and Engel. I would use more conventional methods for this.
“Second Bill of Rights”: What are Rights, Exactly?
For example, the idea of health care as a right is almost certain to come up. Usually, there is at least one student, often several, who will make the argument that a “right” cannot compel a service to be performed by others. “What about jury duty?” Pause. “After all, trial by jury has been called a ‘sacred right’ in some documents from the Framers’ time. Unless you meet an exception, you have to show up for jury duty or you can be arrested. Isn’t that compelling a service from others?” “Well, but that’s different.” “Okay, think about for a few minutes. If you’re going to convince anyone, you’ll have to be able to say how it’s different.” And on goes the debate.
There are myriad paths the discussion may take. The primary purpose isn’t to guide students to particular “right” answers for these broad, over-arching questions. The purpose is to get them to think about what they believe and why they believe it.
Over all, it held their attention and I think they got something out of it. If I were still in the classroom, I would likely devote a full two weeks to Civil Liberties, as well as a full two weeks to Civil Rights, and further develop a number of lessons so that they would tie in with the units on institutions, policy-making, and political opinion—probably by reorganizing the lessons into dedicated case studies. But I would definitely continue to bookend Civil Liberties with Roosevelt’s two speeches. They are provocative and help generate excellent discussions.
About Andrew Elliott McBurney
He most recently taught AP U.S. Government & Politics, Dual-Credit Government, and Government at Alief Hastings High School in Houston, Texas, and was a member of his school district’s Social Studies Pre-AP/AP Vertical Team. He is also an adjunct professor at Houston Community College where he teaches American National Government and Texas Government at night.
Through his career, Mr. McBurney has facilitated several professional developments, served on campus technology committees and textbook adoption committees, and participated in campus and district leadership teams. When he has free time, he usually doesn’t know what to do with it, but he often finds himself in state parks, roadside diners, and used book stores.
In January 2015, Mr. McBurney began a new job as the Advanced Academic Specialist at Educational Service Center (Region) 4.