Because we are so concerned about the preservation of America’s Bill of Rights, not to mention the rest of the U. S. Constitution, we were thrilled to learn of the efforts, and effectiveness of the Bill of Rights Institute.
We reached out to BRI President Dr. David Bobb about the group’s outreach with a few questions. What follows are our queries and his responses:
From what you’ve seen, how widely is the Bill of Rights taught in American schools?
The Bill of Rights Institute works with approximately one-quarter of the nation’s secondary school teachers in American history, civics, and social studies. Each teacher reaches on average 100 students per academic year. In most states, students in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades are taught American history. Unfortunately, while students might be exposed in one of those classes to the existence of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they are not learning the most basic ideas of the source of rights, government’s purpose, and—most importantly—why all of this matters. So the problem goes well beyond the fact that Americans can’t name the three branches of government, or any of the rights protected in the First Amendment. Rather, students are not being taught what’s at stake in American experiment, and how that experiment impacts each of them. These ideas, if learned at all, seem remote and uninteresting.
What do you hope to accomplish by focusing on free speech in your essay contest?
Free speech is the fulcrum of freedom itself. Without it, tyranny will win out. America’s Founders knew that if citizens are silenced by government, freedom will not last. The Bill of Rights Institute is convinced that as a society we must inculcate the habits of freedom of speech. Starting with college-aged students is too late. So by working with high school students we hope to prepare students for a lifelong commitment to free speech—so that by the time they are in college they demand viewpoint diversity. Currently the culture in academia is one of intolerance, and the only way to reverse that trend, we believe, is to have students in middle and high school own the principles of the Constitution, of which free speech is a lynchpin.
How many teachers and students have signed onto your project or done the essay contest in the past?
In 2016 some 27,000 students were engaged by BRI’s “We the Students” essay contest, with 6,000 of those students submitting essays. That marks a fifteen-fold increase in engagements since 2014, when about 1,700 students were engaged by the project.
What concerns you most about the response you’ve seen from various institutions recently on issues of free speech?
The biggest concern is that students are beset with a real cognitive dissonance. They believe that they are for free speech, even while saying—as the recent Brookings Institution survey revealed—that violence against hate speech is justified (1 out 5 students affirmed this idea). What’s worse is the institutional response that we’ve seen all too often lately, which says, in effect, to students: It’s okay to shut down speakers with whom you disagree, or even inflict violence upon them, because words “wound,” and the emotional harm that might be inflicted on an audience should count for more than the harm done in restricting the free exchange of ideas. Institutions of higher education that allow students to get away with shutting down campus speakers, sometimes even violently, are teaching those students in a way that will have profoundly bad consequences for America’s future. We need courageous university leaders, and lately we’ve seen a lot of cowardice.
How are you able to connect with students on these important issues in a way that captures their attention?
The key thing is to invite students to have a say. Teenagers are trying to find their voice, and the Institute wishes to help them in this process. We also help them with preparation for their exams (Homework Help videos on YouTube), their debates (in a partnership with the National Speech and Debate Association, the largest such group in America), and their extracurriculars (in partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, where at the recently Jamboree we engaged more than 6,000 Scouts, 400 of whom earned merit badges with BRI). Students are quite naturally fans of free speech, so it’s a shame that as a nation we don’t do a better job of showing our young people why this matters to them—and to the nation as a whole. When students see that they are part of that larger, national debate, we find that often they respond beautifully.