Rights: The Foundation of Teaching Civics

In a nation such as ours, one in which its diversity of people is matched also by its diversity of ideas, rights are the foundation of debate and controversey in society.

Photo credit Keith Allison

NFL players in the fall of 2017 took to protesting during the United States National Anthem by kneeling. While this right is protected by the United States Consitution people in our society disagreed or supported this right to protest.

In my classroom we discussed this issue while learning about rights following  the teaching of the Enlightenment. Students had a defintion of the word rights. Most could trace the idea of rights back to philosophers John Locke and Charles Montesquieu. Identifying a founding document which contained an aspect of rights was also not a problem. However, it was the rich discussion we had on the issue of NFL player protests that brought out a deeper understanding of the concept of rights. Students realized that rights are not an agreed upon set of facts. For example, most students supported the idea of the NFL player protests but few would actually have done so if they were given the chance to kneel during the anthem. Not every class was in total support of the idea that players had the right to protest either. What students learned in this lesson was that while rights do exist and some rights, such as free speech, are offered with the protection and full force of the United States Constitution people aren’t in agreement on how rights should be used or even protected.

Linda R. Monk, author of The Bill of Rights A User’s Guide, offers insights on rights using primary sources such as the letters of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Monk points out that while Madison did help to put together the ideas in the Bill of Rights he viewed the listing of rights as nothing more than “a parchment barrier.” This can make an interesting discussion with students about the concept of rights. Once students recognize the rights listed in founding documents such as the English Bill of Rights or the Magna Carta they can then explore the idea of the application of rights using Madison’s idea as a starting point. Likewise, students can debate using Thomas Jefferson’s much more convincing language on the importance of listing specific rights:

To further support the idea of rights as beholden to the people in our society teachers can use polls conducted by non-partisan polling reseach such as Gallup and Pew Research. These polls can be a good launch to support project based learning. Students can use their own research to find polls that support a logical arguement for or against gun rights or teachers carrying firearms in schools.

Source: Pew Research

This school year students learned about gun rights and gun control when we examined the Bill of Rights. Again students are well versed in the words of the Second Amendment but only through close reading and mapping out different viewpoints on the issue of the right to bear arms do students develop a knowledgeable arguement on the issue of rights. In our activity students viewed political cartoons, read expert testimony, and watched video of the experts using clips found on C-SPAN. This close examination of the issue allowed students to understand and appreciate the multifaceted nature of rights in our nation.

The great decider of rights are the people. If only a small fraction of society believe something to be worthy of protecting it may be labeled a right. Likewise, a great majority of people may believe something so much of a right as to be protected by law or by constitution. Even when rights are defined by statutes desputes can occur. When this happens citizens may bring a lawsuit against a party to test the limits of a right in court or as Thomas Jefferson said “…In the arguements in favor of a declaration of rights…the legal check it puts into the hands of the judiciary.”

Links for this post: 

Gun Control lesson created by Dan Fouts, see his blog post on the lesson here 

Linda Monk’s website 


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