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Hall Leads Institute on Bill of Rights

President 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.

President 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 12, 2005)

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 Sage College.

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 already stigmatized.”

This investigation of ways to update the Bill of Rights uncovered at least one outdated concept.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 Amendment.

Schechter asked, “In removing the establishment clause, how will you keep us from state-sponsored religion?”

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 People” program.

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 housing.

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 this week.”