Studying democracy in action -- at the center of things

''I'm not into that [government] stuff -- and that's why I came,'' explained Trent Himes, a sophomore at John Marshall High School in Portland, Ore., about his week in Washington, D.C., as part of the Close Up program. ''I've gotten into some really good debates about abortion, nuclear power, and building up the military.''

Close Up offers 14,000 high-schoolers from across the United States a week of congressional hearings, special meetings with their elected representatives, ''business'' lunches, and thought-jarring seminars.

''I was told,'' recalls Pat Baars, head of Marshall High's humanities department, ''and I assumed before I came here, that this would appeal only to more 'able' students. I know now I was wrong. We have a range of students here; active involvement in what's going on draws in everyone. I have not heard one student say, 'This is boring.' ''

The Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit operation based in Arlington, Va., has worked to debunk two myths while teaching about democracy: (1) Only specially gifted students can go beyond the nuts and bolts of civics; and (2) students and teachers have to learn in separate settings.

Young people are continually being told that they ''are the hope and the future of this country -- but nobody tells them how to deal with that fact,'' asserts Margery Kraus, Close Up vice-president and a former social studies teacher in northern Virginia.

Instead, she says, students arriving in Washington tend to feel that ''government is so overwhelming, so impersonal. It is very hard for the students who come to understand how they fit in. They tend to think they don't count at all.''

Such feelings of ineffectiveness are challenged by Close Up guest speakers such as Rep. Arlan I. Erdahl (R) of Minnesota, who led an hour-long session with 75 hearing-impaired students during a February workshop week. When asked, via a sign language interpreter, about declining federal support for television captioning, the congressman declared that television is ''an avenue of information that you have just as much right to as anybody else.''

The students learned quickly the lesson that a congressman's personal inquiry helps to focus attention on this and other issues. He promised, ''I intend to find out what we (the legislative branch) can do.''

At a luncheon filled with students from Houston, Texas, and Portland, Ore., led by congressmen from both areas, Rep. Bill Archer (R) of Texas explained, ''Elections are won by very small changes in votes. Sometimes it isn't easy to find out whether you really like a particular (candidate) or not,'' but volunteering time and doing research are the best ways.

Representative Archer's views were not left unchallenged, however. One student rose to ask, ''Do you feel that special-interest groups have drained your political freedom?''

And moments later the cohost, Rep. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, looking not much older than some of the students, arrived in time to argue with the Texan over offshore oil-drilling controls. Mr. Archer called Mr. Wyden's opposition to California-Oregon coastal drilling ''provincial'' and ''unfair,'' since states like Texas are left to take the risks of environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico area.

''I think Bill Archer and I would agree,'' Mr. Wyden replied, ''that you need some kind of balance'' between development and environmental protection in our energy policy. He pointed out to the students that this is ''the kind of trade-off we have to make every day in the Congress.''

Trade-offs. Provincial vs. national or international interests. Democrats vs. Republicans vs. independents. Do the students believe what they hear?

''I trust them,'' young Trent reported, ''but I listen to see if I agree.''

Fellow student David hesitated. ''Gee . . . for the most part, I trust that they think they know what they're doing. What they're doing I'm not always sure about. They're trying their best.''

Says Close Up's Margery Kraus, ''The week in Washington is what I call shock treatment. What they really learn is . . . it's not all true or all false. The reduction of issues on the evening news does not give you a chance to learn why there's so much disagreement and why democracy moves so slowly. . . . For a lot of students, that's a revolutionary concept.''

Students who come are ''certainly not uniform in their political attitudes,'' she adds. Thus, one of the main goals of the program is not only to review the nuts and bolts -- how a bill becomes a law, seeing committees in action, studying connections among branches and levels of government -- but to learn how to learn.

''The kids learn that how you ask a question is almost as important as what you ask,'' Ms. Kraus explained. ''You ask . . . so as not to [allow] an easy yes-no answer, while still being polite.''

She explains, ''It's not abnormal for [students, who have arrived on Sunday] to ask on Tuesday, 'How do we know whom to believe?'

''That's a question we ask ourselves, too -- all of us.''

David Spencer elaborated: ''A lot of (students) are still hanging back because they're afraid to ask a dumb question, to be embarrassed.'' However, Close Up provides several afternoon and evening small-group seminars with a dozen or so young participants and a group leader, often back at the hotel, which helps draw out shyer participants and answer questions raised during the day.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 teachers each year attend their own seminars on such topics as education, foreign policy, key domestic issues, and so forth. ''Most of the teachers,'' Ms. Kraus explains, ''want to be exposed to the resources of Washington and to be able to duplicate Close Up-like experiences for students at the state and local levels.

Close Up has its own textbook, ''Perspectives,'' and a periodical, Current Issues, which help to stimulate discussion and provide curriculum material for teachers when they return to their home classrooms.

In operation since 1971, Close Up has recently expanded its offerings to include seminars over cable television, utilizing the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network to which many school systems subscribe.

Congress appropriates about 10 percent of the $11 million operating budget of Close Up, the only Washington program so honored. Students were charged a tuition of $448 this past year; one scholarship is provided to each participating school.

While Trent Himes turned to his family for tuition, schoolmate David Spencer, a senior, obtained $200 from a Portland law firm. Close Up's corporate donors tend to be oil and computer companies.

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