Publication Date

March 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning



In 1983, my colleague Kermit Hall at the University of Florida created the History Teaching Alliance. That organization has since become a national enterprise, headed by HTA Director Jane Lander and jointly supported by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies. It has developed and encouraged summer seminars and colloquia for secondary school teachers in a wide variety of programs nationwide, seeking to invigorate and enrich the teaching of secondary school history courses. In addition, the Alliance effort has built a partnership between academic historians and their secondary school colleagues that will extend beyond occasional summer programs.

In the beginning of the Alliance collaboratives, the substantive focus in these programs was constitutional and legal history, a subject chosen because of the then impending Bicentennial of the Constitution. Professor Hall, who directed a pilot seminar in the summer of 1983, in Gainesville, Florida asked that I assist him in that effort, and in 1984 I became director of the Alachua County Collaborative.

As I began my duties, I had only an intuitive notion of how to proceed, supplemented by my own distant experience as a public school social studies instructor. I knew that teachers would benefit from a seminar setting, but that our emphasis should not replicate a graduate seminar. We should not stress bibliography and interpretation to the exclusion of factual and thematic substance, because our participants would be people who were not conversant with constitutional and legal history. We needed, instead, the structure of a good seminar, with wide participation in informed discussion—the type of effort I associate with an advanced undergraduate course. Such an approach, I concluded, would give our participants the substantive enrichment they need to improve their knowledge of the subject at hand. We also intended to provide participants with a variety of source materials and written works. We wanted teachers to have an opportunity to hone their analytical and interpretive skills and, especially, to examine works of history in an inquiry-based format. Finally, we wanted to bring them into contact with legal professionals, people who work daily with modern variations of the fundamental questions that have helped shape this republic and its legal and constitutional history.

The University of Florida has offered this program for five years and I have directed four summer seminars. We began our sixth year in July 1989. We are the oldest continuing collaborative in the nation, of those begun under HTA auspices. Our program, in addition, is one that has continued to offer constitutional and legal subjects in its summer institute.

Over these five years, our focus has enlarged, and the program has invited the participation of teachers from adjoining school districts. Approximately seventy-five teachers from four school systems have now participated in our program.

Certain premises informed our effort from its inception. First, we decided to spend out time exclusively focused on substantive concerns, omitting pedagogical matters altogether. We wanted academic rigor to be the hallmark of these seminars. Second, we have sought to establish a climate of cooperative inquiry, stressing the shared professional concerns of participants and faculty. We have discouraged any hint of academic intimidation, such as one might find in an occasional first-year graduate seminar or even in a random law school course. Finally, one of objectives of the program has been its eventual absorption into the University of Florida’s Department of History, as part of a renewed university effort to invigorate the subject of history in the state’s secondary schools.

We planned from the beginning to use a variety of materials in our study of the Constitution itself: selections from the Federalist Papers, the Articles of Confederation, and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780; and court cases, in such subsequent topics as the origins of judicial review or the power of the president. For some of these subjects, we would rely on John Patrick’s and Richard Remy’s superb Lessons on the Constitution, one of the study manuals produced by Project ’87, developed under NEH grant support as a joint project of the AHA and the American Political Science Association.

From our first summer program, the participants responded enthusiastically to our effort. They found the subject of constitutional history both invigorating and challenging. We knew they did, because they told us so. Their evaluations uniformly confirmed their sense of accomplishment in our enterprise.

After our first summer seminar some participants gave us informal opinions that suggested deficiencies in our curriculum. They made clear that the seminars could be improved in part by rethinking the appropriateness of some of our course materials.

In planning our program we had assumed that all our social studies teachers had, minimally, a few history courses in their academic backgrounds. We further assumed that at least some of them had been undergraduate history majors. But the teachers pointed out that many of them, in fulfilling state requirements for social studies certification, had taken few history courses. In some instances, teachers had gained certification with no history work at all. (Changes in certification requirements in Florida in recent years make such a meager subject background impossible for new teachers.) As a consequence, several of our participants lacked the historical background necessary to provide an informed analysis of some of the materials our course utilized. In short, the complaint was not that the seminar was too sophisticated, or too demanding. It was, instead, a discontent over meager academic preparation on the part of the participants. The teachers suggested, therefore, that they be provided not only with course materials similar to those assigned in the previous collaborative, but with additional or supplementary materials to be read prior to the summer meetings. (All our materials are mailed to participants approximately one month before our session begins.)

These concerns produced several modifications in our seminar. We surveyed the academic background of our participants by having them describe to us their undergraduate history course work (and graduate coursework as well). We did not use this information to screen applicants, however, because our approach to participant selection throughout has been inclusive: to make our program available to all interested teachers in the school systems we serve. Indeed, we hope that the teachers who have weaker subject backgrounds will participate; we would be likely to select participants because they lacked previous history study.

We have used the information gleaned from personal discussion to adjust our course materials and to provide additional reading for participants who might lack an understanding of, for example, the origins of American constitutionalism. We might now make available Bernard Bailyn’s chapters in The Great Republic, on reserve at the University of Florida’s library, or Gordon Wood’s chapters in the same volume. We might include the early chapters in Herman Belz’s revision of the Kelly and Harbison constitutional history textbook, or a chapter from Esmond Wright’s Fabric of Freedom (revised edition) explaining British politics in the age of the American Revolution. In every instance, the purpose is identical: to assist seminar participants in their effort to become more skilled analysts of a wide variety of constitutional source materials by first acquiring a basic familiarity with the history of the period. One simply cannot assume that such an historical awareness already exists.

Perhaps no illustration better demonstrates this problem than the attempt to introduce the concept of judicial review. Our initial plan was to study this idea in the context of American constitutionalism in the same manner that first year law students take up the subject: we would begin with Marbury v. Madison, then assign an edited version of John Marshall’s opinion, give the participants a twenty-minute lesson on how to brief a case, and, on the following day, use participant briefs to initiate a discussion of Marshall’s immortal ruling. Such a process should insure clear understanding of the constituent elements of judicial review as Marshall developed them.

How could this plan fail? Is it not time tested? We discovered, of course, that it could fail very easily, especially if our participants had never read the case before or, in fact, had never read any court case prior to our seminar meeting. Nor could they read a truncated version of Marshall’s opinion and deduce a definition of judicial review. In short, for many of them, this exposure to Marbury was their first exposure to judicial opinion of any kind. Our participants were as vexed by Marbury as first-year law students often are. And their confusion could not be clarified through a Socratic exchange—try though we did.

Our problem was compounded because our participants had no clear notion of the meaning of the term judicial review in any historical context. Moreover, they had a confused idea of the procedures whereby cases come to federal courts, and they were especially perplexed when asked to explain how cases ever got to the Supreme Court.

In the face of this confusion, we retreated and reevaluated. We determined first that an understanding of the Marbury case is essential to the concept of judicial review. On that rock we stood with every constitutional law textbook author who has ever taken up a pen. But we also concluded that in subsequent seminars we would present Marbury with materials that prepared our students for the case. We would still do a brief, identify the legal issues, and try to reproduce Marshall’s line of legal reasoning—but only after a more purposeful introduction to the subject of judicial review. Such a practice would, we hoped, give our teachers the introduction they required to this important subject, and would enable them to read the case with greater understanding.

Propitiously, the American Historical Association had initiated a series in 1984, edited by Professor Herman Belz, entitled Bicentennial Essays on the Constitution. The first volume appeared in early 1985, authored by—who else?—Kermit Hall, entitled The Supreme Court and Judicial Review in American History. In this essay, Hall traces the historical evolution of the idea of judicial review, from early colonial and British musing on the subject, through the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention. The pamphlet continues, of course, into a discussion of the evolution of the idea into modern-day judicial decision-making.

In his narrative, he provides his readers with a lucid explication of judicial review as it was understood in the late eighteenth century. He then proceeds to a two-page discussion of Marbury, which sets the case in its proper context and emphasizes its primary theoretical importance. Hall’s discussion in no way replicates the case itself—that is not Hall’s intention—or substitutes for a careful reading of Marshall’s opinion. But Hall does accomplish a critical task. He prepares the untutored to grapple with one of the primary texts of American constitutional history—the great case itself. Having read and discussed Hall’s essay, students find Marbury manageable, and instructors find the case discussion much more illuminating and rewarding. Such investigation, when combined with carefully crafted discussion, enabled our seminar participants to understand judicial review in a way they had not grasped it previously. They became sufficiently conversant with the principles of Marshall’s argument to enable them to present the case to their own students, with clarity and even drama. I had occasion, on two subsequent classroom visits, to observe secondary colleagues conducting classes on the establishment of judicial review, and can attest that the teachers who conducted the classes knew whereof they spoke. They both acknowledged to me that prior to our examination of judicial review in our seminar, they had glossed it over in their units on the Constitution.

By relating this experience, I am trying to suggest that in some contexts, and especially when teaching subjects with which teachers and students are unfamiliar or unknowledgeable, primary materials are better taught when they are joined by distilled scholarship. In this instance, neither source can replace the other, nor can the primary document stand alone.

One additional historical source deserves some mention when discussing ways to teach constitutional concepts to secondary teachers. We confront them with living historical sources: a judge, a state attorney, or a public defender. In our program we arrange each summer for two such guests to visit our proceedings. In the course of our deliberations over these five years we have utilized two federal judges, one district judge, and one member of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals; two state’s attorneys; a state circuit judge; two public defenders; and one former judge now in private civil practice.

Prior to each visit, we discuss with the guest speaker, usually in telephone conversation, the focus of study in our seminar. We send our guests an instructional outline and study materials, and we suggest a specific topic for discussion. We seek to offer our participants a focused presentation which will bear directly on our substantive concerns. The guest presentations, in other words, are intended to supplement our study, not to divert from it.

It has not been necessary for our guest teachers to prepare extended remarks. They can discuss such topics as contemporary judicial review, or the court system of Florida, by explaining their professional duties and concerns. On two occasions, our guests have sent reading materials ahead of their visit, at the offer of the instructors, to be distributed to the participants. In the course of a morning’s work, these “living sources” have challenged our students and enriched our seminar. Judge Gerald Tjoflat of the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, explained how, in September 1971, as a federal circuit judge, he had written the order that dismantled the dual school system in Jacksonville, Florida (Duval County). He then traced the history of the federal court litigation that had led to his order, and outlined a theory of modern judicial review that went back to the pathbreaking Supreme Court decision of Palko v. Connecticut, 1937 and U.S. v. Carolene Products, 1938. In his discussion, Judge Tjoflat confirmed the development of what Kermit Hall has called the “judicial monopoly theory” of federal jurisprudence.

Judge Tjoflat’s presentation profoundly impressed our participants, in part because he is a dynamic personality. But equally importantly, the teachers were prepared by their own seminar work to understand his remarks in their proper constitutional context. They were intrigued as well because the judge was discussing constitutional law, judicial review, and the public schools—a nexus that teachers could readily grasp. Every participant commented subsequently that Judge Tjoflat’s appearance at our seminar was the supreme intellectual experience of the summer.

I do not challenge this view. Indeed, other speakers have been equally effective. I would simply observe that the examination of these “living sources” is little different from the use of any other historical source. The participant must be prepared to interpret. History is, after all, an interpretive art, and skillful interpretation is a learned enterprise. Historical sources, examined by the unlearned or the unskilled, yield very limited insight; sources explored in historical context can provide an experience that excites the intellect and advances historical understanding. Such activity may even make one a better teacher.

Augustus Burns is associate professor of history at the University of Florida and has directed the University of Florida/National Endowment for the Humanities Constitutional seminars for secondary teachers for the past five years.