We the People
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.