Artful Teachers Teach First Amendment Thinking – Forbes

Posted: November 25, 2019 at 2:47 pm


Theres much in the Knight Foundations recent report Student Views on the First Amendment that raises serious concern. Girls and students of color, for example, are more likely to agree that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

But the report also gives reason for optimism. The survey data indicate two positive trends regarding civics education. First, the percentage of high school students reporting that they have taken courses that provide instruction on the First Amendment has increased over time and seems to be holding steady, with roughly two-thirds of respondents reporting that they have taken such courses.

Another reason for optimism: instruction seems to make a difference. As the report notes, such coursework has a significant impact on student support for First Amendment rights and protections.

This outcome is not at all obvious. Another Knight Foundation survey, for example, finds that teachers may not be completely on board, with only 45% favoring First Amendment protections for school newspapers reporting on controversial stories. Further, high school is a time when students start exploring topics, like math and language, in significant depth. And for the first time they have the opportunity to take coursesfrom child psychology to fashion designthat engage their budding career interests. With this as the competition, its not obvious that government and civics coursesthe proverbial spinach of the high school curriculumwould rise to the challenge and make a dent in students sensibilities.

Given this less-than-obvious result, its worth thinking what might be behind it. No doubt, curricular content plays a role. Consider, for example, that a 2017 Brookings study found a majority of students surveyed did not know that hate speech is constitutionally protected. Clearly, teaching students what the First Amendment does and does not protect is an essential step to close gaps in basic knowledge.

While pundits wring their hands over such results, the experienced and artful teacher knows how to turn a knowledge gap like this into genuine surprise that sparks discussion. Discussion leads to aha! moments. All this suggests that curriculum is only part of the story. To make a difference, we cant expect that teaching First Amendment content (alone) will do the heavy lifting. In all likelihood, the teachers who are making the biggest difference are those who introduce and help students practice First Amendment Thinking.

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By First Amendment Thinking, I mean the habit of seeing how the rules of the game play out when the details of the situation conform and do not conform to ones own concerns. Its likely, for example, that female students and students of color are less supportive of the First Amendment because they are thinking of a time when they have felt the pains of exclusion, discrimination, harassment, or fear because someone else was exercising his or her First Amendment right to be a jerk. Teaching First Amendment content (alone) conveys the lesson that, except in rare circumstances, one has to tolerate such speech. This can be a fairly bitter pill for anyone who feels as though they are already disadvantaged and marginalized within the dominant society. To always be the person expected to check their emotions and maintain a posture of tolerance in the face of bigotry gets old.

And in the face of such bigotry, the case for censorship can seem compelling. Its the artful teacher who encourages students to develop the discipline of First Amendment Thinking by, for example, inviting students to imagine whether someone, somewhere, might take offense at a text that the student considers profound. It doesnt matter what the text isa poem by Maya Angelou, a theory advanced by Albert Einstein, a Margaret Atwood novel, the Bible, the Quran, a Harry Potter film. It doesnt take long before students realize that the speech they consider most sacred will be offensive to someone. By flipping the script in this way, the artful teacher helps students understand why offense cannot serve as justification for censorship without catching them in the censors trap as well.

Further, First Amendment Thinking encourages students to adopt Nobel laureate James Buchanans famous dictum, which is to understand government oversight without romance. As applied to state censorship, Buchannans insight reminds us that it is dangerous to assume that people who have the power to censor others will always exercise that power in the best interest of the public. First, the public interest is a tangle of competing interests, so even a well-intentioned political actor will not be able to live up to the challenge. Second, because people who hold the power to censor have interests of their own, it is unlikely that they will have a strong incentive to protect the interests of those who do not hold such power. This includes marginalized minority groups who have historically borne the brunt of political and cultural oppression.

In short, First Amendment Thinking helps students understand why we have a Constitution in the first place. Constitutional constraints like the First Amendment are not put in place to advance the interests of a particular group. On the contrary, the Founders put these constraints in place to protect the rights of every individual from unconstrained power. What the Knight Foundation report shows is that theres nothing obvious or easy about thinking like an informed citizen. It takes patience and artful teaching.

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Artful Teachers Teach First Amendment Thinking - Forbes

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