Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


We the People

By Shawn Healy
I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a judge for the Illinois state finals of the annual "We the People" competition last Friday. Directed by the Center for Civic Education through funding from the federal Department of Education, Pat Feichter runs a wonderful organization that combats the civic illiteracy that has infected not only our youth, but our society as a whole. Seven schools with teams ranging in size from 9 to 29 students boned up on the nation's founding debates and documents, preparing brief four minute presentations for judges, and later responding to a series of questions during a six-minute follow-up period.

Among the themes considered were the philosophical and historical foundations of the American political system; the means by which the Founders crafted the Constitution; the way in which constitutional values shapes American institutions and practices; the development and expansion of the Bill of Rights; the protections the Bill of Rights guarantees; and finally, the role of American citizens in our democracy.

The schools selected subunits of three to five students to specialize in one of these six areas of concentration from which one of three major questions was selected by the judges to guide their initial presentations. For example, my cohort selected the following question in the area of how the framers created the Constitution:

One of the keenest insights of our Founders was that the process by which we arrive at decisions matters a great deal. Legislating is not like war, in which one side strives to impose its will on the other... Good politicians look for solutions that allow both sides to claim, if not victory, at least some gains. Do you agree or disagree with this observation? Why?

It was particularly refreshing for me to see young people grappling with such consequential questions. Their knowledge of the founding debates was more than impressive, further cementing the effectiveness of civic-related instruction wanting in most classrooms across America. I have always contended that these debates are not worthy of the dust that has gathered upon them. Students, and people in general for that matter, are inherently interested in controversy. The Constitutional Convention and the document it produced embody a range of contentious issues, many of them still impacting us today more than 220 years since the ink dried.

Pat Feichter asked me to say a few words about the Freedom Museum to the group over lunch upon the conclusion of the Constitution. The students were amazed to learn that our Simpson's survey identified only one adult in 1,000 who could identify all five of the freedoms embedded in the First Amendment. I challenged this group of about 200 students and teachers to do the same, and many volunteered their responses eagerly, and accurately I might add.

I spoke of how these founding debates and documents remain critical to us circa 2007. One need look no further than the developments in the Illinois Legislature with the mandate of a moment of silence that may include prayer at the start of the school day, or the crackdown at Morton West on students who participated in an on-campus war protest to see why knowledge of the five freedoms and all of our rights guaranteed by the founding documents matters.

If we don't understand the implications of these rights we won't translate their relevance in today's world, and to fight for their continued sustenance as our democratic republic survives its third century. Kudos to a group of young people that understands the importance of our civic creed, to the hard work of Pat Feichter and the Center for Civic Education in making this formative experience possible, and to the teachers who devoted long hours to preparing their students for this charge. I was honored to be a small part of our ongoing experiment in a social contract between a democratic government and its people.

Congratulations to Maine South High School and teachers Mr. Trenkle and Mr. Hansen for advancing to the national competition in Washington as representatives of the Prairie State.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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