New High School Curriculum Will Focus on Founding Fathers, Constitution

By Steve Brown | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - On a mission to develop in young Americans what President Ronald Reagan called "an informed patriotism," the non-profit, Alexandria, Va.-based Bill of Rights Institute is slated to unveil this fall a new curriculum for high school students emphasizing the principles of the Constitution.

The institute, established in 1999, aims to educate high school students and teachers about our country's founding principles through programs that explore what the nation's first leaders said, what their documents communicated and how these ideas affect our daily lives and shape our society, according to Victoria Hughes, institute president.

"We believe that informed patriotism depends upon the knowledge of our country's founding principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," Hughes told

This idea is not new, Hughes said, quoting James Madison, "the father of the Constitution," who over 200 years ago said: "It is universally admitted that a well instructed people alone can be permanently free."

Hughes also cited the recent comments of David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of President John Adams. McCullough lamented that "our national amnesia" about history represents "a threat to liberty."

"So we go from James Madison all the way up through David McCullough basically delivering the same message that without the knowledge of who we are as a people and what we stand for, we are creating a situation where our liberty could be in jeopardy. Our freedom, our strength as a country is threatened by this lack of knowledge," Hughes said.

She added that the Bill of Rights Institute focuses on high school students and teachers because "unfortunately, that is the last time most Americans study about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

The institute provides American history, government and civics teachers with instructional materials such as videos and sample teaching plans to supplement the textbooks, which Hughes said, "tend to be thin gruel" these days. She recalled one textbook that "spent 33 lines on George Washington and 10 pages on Bill Clinton."

The newest curriculum product, "Citizenship and Character: Exploring Civic Values From the Founding to Today," scheduled for release in August, "will look at American civic values that are embedded in our Constitution and that have been lived by the founders and other great Americans in our history," Hughes said.

Great interest has already been shown for the new curriculum, Hughes said, and a free sample lesson from it is available at the institute website. Hughes pointed out that 16,000 teachers have chosen material from the institute to incorporate in their teaching programs.

The Bill of Rights Institute also provides teacher training.

"Unfortunately, many teachers themselves do not have this knowledge because in college, they majored in social studies, which means they spent very little time focused on the founding period," Hughes said.

The institute holds constitutional seminars for teachers nationwide throughout the year. Thus far, more than 2,000 have attended, she said.

"We also hold a summer institute for teachers at George Mason University in Virginia. It's a week-long graduate-level course for teachers who seek more in-depth knowledge," according to Hughes.

The institute has just begun collaborating with an IMAX producer on a film called We the People to debut at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the National Mall on July 4, 2004.

"It will be a film that celebrates the history of freedom from the founding to today," Hughes said, adding that it will be available to the other 150 IMAX theaters around the country as well. "We think this will be a great field trip opportunity for teachers to bring their classes to."

She also revealed that the institute has just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Bush's "We the People" initiative to develop a curriculum entitled "The Founders and the Constitution: A Teacher's Guide."

This 24-unit curriculum focuses on the individual contributions of the Founding Fathers and will be accompanied by a classroom poster series, interactive website and a monthly e-mail newsletter.

"We are going to be focusing on their positive contributions to American constitutional government - something unique that has not been done in quite a while," Hughes said. The discussion of who did or did not have slaves or illegitimate children "has been done and overdone," she added.

The curriculum dealing with the Founders and the Constitution is scheduled for release in 2005.

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