Hall Leads Institute on
Bill of Rights
Kermit L. Hall, far right, opened a
six-day institute, meeting with dedicated
teachers who convened to learn more
about the nation's Bill of Rights and
how they can better incorporate it
in their classroom teaching.
by Greta Petry (June
The big question posed by University at Albany
President Kermit L. Hall at the close of the “We
the People” institute was: “What
is the greatest threat to liberty?”
The answer from institute participants was
twofold: Ignorance and fear.
The question and answers were all part of
the discussions on the final day of the institute,
which was attended by 22 school teachers from
around the nation. It ran from July 3 to July
8 at Empire Commons.
Participants immersed themselves in the Bill
of Rights and rewrote parts of that document
to reflect modern themes like minority group
rights, as well as rights to education, health
care, and housing.
Hall served as academic director for the
institute, where he teamed up with political
scientists Martin Edelman of the University
at Albany and Stephen Schechter of Russell
For this institute, the tables were turned.
Instead of giving homework, the teachers had
homework to do. Prior to arriving in Albany,
participants were expected to read four books
and 800 pages of other materials.
On the institute’s last day, teachers
split into three units on group, individual,
and social rights, to offer their final presentations
on how they would design a new Bill of Rights
for the nation.
Teacher Thomas Harron of Washington, a member
of the group rights presentation, said he is
often reminded that the growing number of Hispanic
people in his community have no job protection,
little recourse to address grievances, and
sometimes encounter language problems.
Hall, Schechter, and Edelman played devil’s
advocate and picked apart specific points. “Are
you legalizing or stigmatizing them?” questioned
Hall. One teacher responded: “They are
This investigation of ways to update the
Bill of Rights uncovered at least one outdated
concept. The individual rights group threw
out the Third Amendment, which states that
during peacetime, a soldier must have the consent
of the owner of the house before he decides
to make quarters there. It’s not what we ordinarily think
of when we consider the first ten amendments
to the U.S. Constitution that ensure such basic
rights as freedom of speech and religion.
The individual rights group also chose to
remove the establishment clause from the First
Schechter asked, “In removing the establishment
clause, how will you keep us from state-sponsored
Several teachers argued that state-sponsored
religion would be a plus, because it would
strengthen the central government.
Edelman, however, noted that state-sponsored
religion can lead to complications, such as
the recent example of Prince Charles’s
civil wedding ceremony, which his mother, Queen
Elizabeth II, could not attend as the head
of the Church of England.
“In dissenting religions, members operate
under certain handicaps,” Edelman added.
Institute organizer and Indiana teacher Drew
Horvath, who represents the Center for Civic
Education, first met Hall 10 years ago when
the historian and constitutional expert came
to Indiana as a scholar in the “We the
Horvath explained the institute participants
in Albany have already completed a weeklong
study of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights
institute was the advanced course of study.
“We all teach the ‘We the People
program,’ which teaches young people
about their rights as well as their responsibilities.
More than just learning about the three branches
of government, the students learn how to live
in a free society,” Horvath said. The
teachers attending the institute have taught ‘We
the People’ for anywhere from two to
15 years. ‘We the People’ is a
national program created in 1987, which has
introduced more than 26 million students and
100,000 educators to the 1791 Bill of Rights.
The group rights unit argued the Bill of
Rights does not give enough protection to minority
groups, including the disabled, Native Americans,
or African Americans, and advised the creation
of a National Group Rights Commission.
Teacher Kent Barter of Tubac, Ariz., noted
that in our “winner take all” concept
of majority rule, some groups will never have
enough votes to be in the majority.
This unit proposed that any group which,
for immutable reasons, lacks access to full
participation in society, must be given the
rights of human dignity, education, economic
opportunity, group identity, health care, and
Hall asked the group: “How will you know
this approach has made a difference?” Several
teachers responded, among them Dan Droski of
Lowell, Mich. “They will know there is
a solution to the problem. There won’t
be the animosity you have today of groups not
having their needs met.”
During a break between sessions, Yvonne Rhodes,
a tenth grade teacher from South Carolina who
teaches world history, American government,
and economics, said, “One of the best
things I learned this week is in the area of
human dignity – it was really stressed