08 October 2013

Common Core Constitutional Cut Up

Sixth Grade students in Bryant, Arkansas were given a curious assignment as part of theCommon Core curriculum.   The History class at Bryant Middle School had an assignment aimed at inspiring persuasive and engaging presentations.  All the groups of eleven year olds had to do was prioritize and revise the Bill of Rights.

 The History class work is premised on the idea that the government of the United States has determined that the Bill of Rights is outdated.  The assignment asked students to assume the persona of an excerpt on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights named to the "National Revised Bill of Rights (NRBR) Task Force, which is charged with ensuring that the "pursuit of happiness remains guarded in the 21st Century".   The substantial objective of this exercise was to excise two Amendments and add two Amendments.

This exercise was fundamentally flawed on its substance.  This faux NRBR task force was supposed to protect the "pursuit of happiness".  But that phrase is in the Declaration of Independence (1776) not the Bill of Rights.

These middle school students had not been schooled on the reasons why the Bill of Rights was introduced by James Madison in 1789 and ratified in 1791.  They have no idea that the Constitution would not have been ratified by several of the States without the prospect of a Bill of Rights.   Obviously, the arguments by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists would be far beyond their ken in civics. 

Then there is the inconvenient truth that the Federal Government does not dictate which Amendments are outdated and need to be pruned.  The United States Supreme Court does not inherently decide if laws are outdated, they are tasked with declaring what is constitutional.   Justices do not turn to task forces for their opinions. 

There are mechanisms to revise the Constitution, either through a cumbersome Amendment process ( 2/3rds vote of the House and Senate and 3/4ths ratification by States), a Constitutional Convention or an Article V  Amendments stemming from the States as has been elucidated by Mark Levin's Liberty Amendments (2013) as well as the Madison Coalition.  A federal NRBR task force does not fit into this real life civic scenario, much less deciding what is outdated.

In addition, Amendments are not "pruned",  but they may be superceded by later Amendments. Consider the Eighteenth Amendment (1919) establishing Prohibition of Alcohol and the Twenty-First Amendment (1933) which repealed it.  As Glenn Beck opined: "[T]his document (the Constitution) is great for one reason: they left in the scars."  That way we can remember our mistakes as well as our growth.

But the Bill of Rights Bill of Rights are understood to be to inalienable rights, which are not granted by government but flow from Divine Providence to "We the People".    They ought not be deemed outdated.

Years ago I remember a civics exercise which was part of my secondary school education that somewhat related to this assignment.  Groups of students were told that they were abandoned on a remote island and needed to draw up rules for living together.  The educational objectives may have involved analyzing a situation, group interaction and forensic presentation.   For me, the exercise underlined the genius of the American Constitutional system for ensuring freedom of individuals while living in a larger society, and whet a lifelong interest in public policy.  But it did not presuppose that we were Constitutional experts or ignoring our established norms of our polity.

The Bryant School District is proud to embrace the Common Core standards to improve students literacy and math skills.   Common Core seeks to augment these skill sets through interdisciplinary learning.  Thus this History assignment was supposed to test reading, writing and language skills on informational texts.

A recent rhetorical rumble at the CATO Institute had Chester Finn, Jr. from the Fordham Institute defending Common Core Standards     One of the supposed virtues of Common Core is teaching skill sets not particular knowledge, allowing communities and educators to have subject matter which they deem important.  As this Bryant Middle School 6th grade History exercise shows, it was nominally about the Constitution but had little reference to understanding it while perpetuating the progressive conceit of the Constitution being a Living Document.

Unfortunately, this History exercise was premised on the Patriot Act debate, which is asking a lot of middle school students, particularly without the background knowledge of history or civics.  Moreover, the instructions of the exercise circumvents the Constitution Amendment process in trying to prune and update it.  The subject matter is so cutting edge, it is hard not to believe that the teacher will not color the debate and the student presentations.  Such shaping of opinion in the guise of education shows why some conservatives are so chary about Common Core. 

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