Tag Archives: We The People

Citizens for a Totalitarian State?

Okay, I’m officially worried.

I’m currently in Fairfax, Virginia, on the (really beautiful) campus of George Mason University; I’m here as one of the 71 judges of the national “We the People” finals. For those who don’t know anything about “We the People,” it is probably the single most effective civics curriculum being used in the U.S. Unfortunately, its use is entirely voluntary–teachers can choose to adopt it for junior and senior government classes, but it is entirely up to them.

Students in WTP classes study the history and philosophy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When they c0mplete the semester, most know a great deal more about the nation’s founding documents than most adults. The conclusion of the course–which was an outgrowth of Warren Burger’s Bicentennial Commission–is a competition modeled upon congressional hearings. Each class is divided into six teams, each assigned to one of the six units in the textbook. The teams are grilled by three-judge “panels” to ascertain their mastery of the subject-matter, first in competitions held in each congressional district, and then at the state level. The state winner goes to the national finals.

I am a member of one of those three-judge panels, and my team’s assignment was Unit 5–the Bill of Rights. Our assignment was focused upon the First Amendment, and our questions were intended to determine what the students knew about the philosophy and jurisprudence of Free Speech. We saw 14 teams yesterday, and we will see another 14 today.

The good news is that all of the students on all of the teams displayed impressive knowledge of the origins and jurisprudence of free speech. They could quote the Founders, they could recite the case law, identify the jurists, and report the reasoning of each case.

The bad news is that students on most of the teams we reviewed accepted the logic of those cases without question. If the Court said that suppression of expression was acceptable in a particular situation, then it was. The case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, for example, held that high school newspapers can be censored by school administrators. The decision has been heavily criticized in the 25 years since it was handed down, and in some states, legislatively overruled. And yet many of the students, when asked, dutifully parroted the holding and defended its logic by arguing that students “need to be protected from ‘inappropriate’ information.” They similarly had no problem with the decision in Buckley v. Valeo that money equals speech, and expressed no qualms that Citizens United might result in giving some speakers the ability to drown out the speech of those with fewer dollars to spend.

When questioned about efforts to restrict speech during wartime, several students defended the right of government to impose censorship “for public safety.” And in at least two cases, they seemed willing to give in to the “heckler’s veto”–to agree that government could suppress public speeches if those speeches had potential to create public disturbances.

Students were generally unwilling to disagree with or criticize past Court decisions, even those that have subsequently been narrowed or abandoned. If I had to characterize their approach, I would call it docile or submissive. If there’s a law, these kids will obey it, no matter how unreasonable it may be. We didn’t see many  who are likely to protest, or engage in civil disobedience, and even in this era of anti-government sentiment, we saw a troubling number who seemed willing to believe that government always knows best.

I hasten to say that there were many exceptions, and that we only saw half of the competing teams. Three or four of those teams (including one from Indiana) were outstanding–thoughtful, analytic and articulate. And I understand that we’ll see some of the stronger teams today. But most of the competitors are here because they won a state-level contest, and I can’t help wondering about the prevalence among them of a meek and unquestioning acceptance of authority.

They’re teenagers, for heaven’s sake! If they aren’t going to question authority now, how docile will they be when they have children and a mortgage?


Send Money

I’m turning this morning’s post over to a government teacher at Cathedral High School, who is trying to raise money for her students to travel to Washington, D.C. to compete in the national We The People contest.

My name is Jill Baisinger; I am the coach of Cathedral High School’s We the People team.  My class is trying to fund raise our trip to Washington D.C. for the We the People National Competition.  Below is some information regarding the program and our school’s involvement.  

We the People is a national civic education program that is taught in 5th grade, 8th grade, and 12th grade classrooms. Its purpose is to help prepare students to become more active citizens. Students specialize in an area of constitutional studies from founding philosophies, historical application, civil rights, civil liberties, or current applications. The culminating activity is a competition set up as a Congressional hearing where students take and defend their constitutional view as they have a conversation with attorneys, judges, historians, and other members of the community.

This is only Cathedral’s second year to have a We the People program, yet the team this year won their Congressional district competition and the Indiana State competition, which is one of the three hardest competitions in the country. Cathedral is now “Team Indiana” – and will represent Indiana at the National hearings at the end of April in Washington D.C.

In the past, when We the People was fully funded through a Congressional earmark, the Indiana Bar Foundation was able to pick up the cost of the team to travel to D.C. and compete. During these economic hard times, this is no longer the case; now the team must raise $33,000 to get to the national competition. Students, parents, and Cathedral High School are working hard to make this come true – and this is what the money would go toward – getting the team to D.C. to compete against the best We the People teams across the country.

The students and I would be more than happy to do a 15 minute demonstration for you, to introduce you to the program. Or I would be more than willing to meet you to chat about the benefits of the program myself – Just let me know! Here is the website for our group – that gives a little more information about the program, history at Cathedral, and the team’s achievements in a short period of time. www.gocathedral.com/wethepeople ;

If you are interested in more information on ways to make a tax-deductible contribution to Cathedral’s “We the People…” team, please contact Cathedral’s Development Officer, Michelle Rhodes at (317) 968 – 7311 ormrhodes@gocathedral.com.

The decision to de-fund We The People has to rank as one of the stupidest, “penny-wise, pound foolish” decisions by a Congress that seems to wallow in stupidity. The program is one of the very few that has consistently been demonstrated to be effective in imparting basic civic understanding. As someone who has been a judge for the state contest, I can personally attest to the depth of historical and constitutional knowledge the students display. And unlike contests like “brain game,” all of the students in a given class participate–the extent of that participation is one of the criteria for which points are awarded. A couple of bright kids can’t “carry” the others.

I know young people for whom participation in We The People was a turning point, an experience that engaged them in active citizenship for years afterward. Competing at the national level can only intensify that experience.

I’m going to send a contribution to Cathedral; I hope many of you reading this will choose to do likewise.

Burning Down the Village to Roast a Pig

One of my favorite lines from a Supreme Court decision was delivered in the opinion striking down the mis-named “Internet Decency Act.” The Court compared the measure to burning down a village to roast a pig.

The “pig” this time is the budget deficit, which is unquestionably a very significant problem. Unfortunately, Congress is attacking America, not the problem.

Any credible economist will confirm that even if we zeroed out all discretionary spending–that is, if we spent only on the military and entitlements, and absolutely nothing else–we would not erase the deficit for twenty-plus years. (Actually, we would never erase it, because that would destroy the economy and lose billions in tax revenues.) If we are to get the budget balanced, we must couple responsible, judicious spending cuts (including military cuts) with measures to grow the economy and increase tax revenues. We might begin with rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Instead, Congress is merrily proceeding to destroy civil society.

There has been a lot written about the effect of defunding Planned Parenthood on the health of poor women, and about the effort to kill public broadcasting. Those proposals are in the news. But another proposed cut that has been less discussed would defund the single most successful civic education program we have. The “savings” wouldn’t pay for a single fighter jet, but the cost would be incalculable.

The program is “We the People.” In a 2010 study conducted for the Center for Civic Education, students who completed We the People were far and away more knowledgeable about the country’s democratic principles and institutions compared to their peers.

We the People national finalists also were:

* More likely to register to vote, write to a public official, investigate compelling political issues, participate in lawful demonstrations, and boycott certain products or stores.

* More likely to agree that keeping up with political affairs, influencing the political structure, developing a meaningful philosophy of life, becoming a community leader, and helping others in need are of strong to absolute importance.

* More likely to agree that people should be able to express unpopular opinions and that newspapers should be able to publish freely, without government interaction.

As a graduate student who has worked with the program put it in an email to me:

“It’s mind boggling to me that right now, when we need it most, the best program in the country on educating citizens would be eliminated. This is very real, as the Center for Civic Education had to cancel the We the People – Frontiers partnership. Frontiers is a 70+ year old organization providing civic engagement opportunities to the African American community. Four years ago, we teamed up with them to provide We The People to their inner-city and urban club students on nights and weekends, since their schools are no longer teaching civics. These kids traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, competed in We the People competition and experienced the civil rights movement first-hand, learning from Foot Soldiers who marched when they were their age. That event was scheduled to take place in July and has been cut. 600+ inner-city and urban youth from around the country have already been hurt by this, not to mention the millions more in the future who may never know We the People.”

I wonder what those who are stoking the fire will do when our civic village is gone.