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An actual lesson in civics

"Shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom." — Adlai Stevenson

Imagine if cable news and talk radio were dominated by commentators who subscribed to this ethic rather than the pulsing-neck-vein types. How refreshing it would be if our political discourse was awash in tempered, reasoned argument instead of frothing snideness.

Well, that remarkable world can be found at the annual We the People: The Citizen and The Constitution high school civics competition. Every year about 1,500 students converge on Washington, D.C., to compete on their knowledge and understanding of our system of government and the principles that undergird it. This year, as in many years past, I was a judge.

The competition is not just an exercise in rote memorization. Teams of students representing every state must be able to bring forward the great ideas of history from Aristotle to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and apply them to the complex and controversial political questions of today.

I judged a unit on the Bill of Rights where the students knew they would be asked about the Fourth Amendment. They were prepared to discuss the way the nation's founders were sorely grieved by the British use of fishing expedition search warrants known as writs of assistance. The Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures and its highly specific warrant requirement were a direct response to this treatment.

But what the students didn't know was what modern applications of the Fourth Amendment they would be asked to speak on. My fellow judges and I asked some teams whether eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mail without an individualized warrant is justified in light of the threat of terrorism.

In response, these students from primarily public schools were able to extemporaneously discuss the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court and Congress' recent restrictions on the court's ability to oversee government surveillance activities.

No one quoted Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. But a number of teams offered the words of chief Nuremberg prosecutor and Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who said of uncontrolled search and seizure: "Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart."

More than 28 million students have taken part in the We the People civics curriculum, designed by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Civic Education ( Studies demonstrate that large percentages emerge as engaged citizens who later register to vote and participate in public interest organizations and political campaigns. A survey conducted in 2007 found that on a test of constitutional knowledge, We the People students scored 36 percent higher than college students taking introductory political science courses.

The center has been promoting civics education for more than 25 years — a tough fight as civics has gotten nudged out of middle and high school curriculums. But civics education is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. In Florida, former Sen. Bob Graham has been pushing for more mandatory civics, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has made it her mission.

In a recent speech to the Florida Legislature she bemoaned the fact that far more Americans can name the judges on American Idol than the three branches of government. O'Connor has been touring the country to raise awareness of her new interactive Web site,, which is designed to engage young people in the judicial system.

But what is really needed is sophisticated civics education at both the middle school and high school level.

And that wonderful Adlai Stevenson quote was used by Margaret Branson, the center's associate director, to open the We the People competition. It was a reminder that We the People students don't have to shout to make their point. Their course of study has turned them into critical thinkers who use sound reasoning instead of excess volume. Aren't these the kinds of citizens we want?

An actual lesson in civics 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 4:30am]
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