High Schoolers Debate US Constitution

State teams learn respect for the shades of gray in American law

The crew-cut high school sophomore leans forward, an earnest expression on his face, and tackles the question, "What rights does the Bill of Rights protect?"

His ad-libbed answer is action-packed, sprinkled with quotes from James Madison's essays in "The Federalist Papers," the implications of a 19th-century Supreme Court decision, and a passage from Plato's "Republic."

But no sooner does he finish than a fellow student - one of five seated before a panel of three interrogators - jumps in with a hearty "I disagree." She rattles off a different interpretation of the quote by Madison and counters the Supreme Court decision with another by the Court in 1911. Like her predecessor, she has no notes before her.

The 30 students in the room are from Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore. They and their small retinue of teachers and parents were in Washington last weekend for the finals of the national competition "We the People ... the Citizen and the Constitution." The Oregon delegation was among 1,200 high school students from every US state, territory, and the District of Columbia.

Worth the effort

The students have spent this school year studying an intense, demanding course on the Constitution and Bill of Rights that was added to the regular curricula of their schools. Despite the added workload, the students concur on one key point: The effort is definitely worthwhile.

"I joined because my friends told me how much they had learned," says Ashley Schmidt of Portland. "It's been definitely worth it, absolutely."

"Above everything else," says another Oregon student, "this course teaches you respect for the shades of gray in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the body of American law."

After the two previous competitors wind up, five new students and three new interrogators take their places at tables set in front of the audience. The next question: "How did the values and principles embodied in the Constitution shape American institutions and practices?"

For these students, it has been a year of learning that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as this debate demonstrated, are far more than seven articles amended 27 times. Their study has taken them through a maze of historic precedents, countless legal interpretations, court decisions, and the wisdom of social and legal philosophers, some of whose works have been read for more than 25 centuries.

"We the People ... the Citizen and the Constitution" was founded 10 years ago by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution. It is funded by the US Department of Education and administered by the Center for Civic Education, a think tank in Calabasas, Calif.

The center has designed detailed courses on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that it offers to high schools and some elementary schools across the nation. Since the program began in 1987, more than 20 million students have participated. The climax each year is the Washington competition.

Lincoln High School has won its district and state competition debates since the program started. The teams of 30 students each have also won three national championships, one second-place finish, and two fourth-place prizes. This year' team came in third. First place went to Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, Fla.

Countering ignorance

"We the People" courses are taught at Lincoln High by three lawyers. One of the three, Hal Hart, founded the program in response to a barrage of complaints about American primary and secondary education. A burly, cheerful man, Mr. Hart was alarmed by polls which showed the depth of constitutional ignorance among high school students.

"Most of them would vote out of sheer ignorance to eliminate the Bill of Rights," he says.

Lincoln High's students are intensely involved in their constitutional studies. Aside from several protracted classroom sessions, they meet on their own, usually one or two afternoons a week, to review what they've learned, debate the meaning of the subjects and systems, and throw bits of constitutional arcana at each other - everything from the Founding Fathers' view of "the public welfare" to the difference between protected and unprotected speech in the Bill of Rights.

All of this - as well as their performance at the Washington competition - is conducted with youthful enthusiasm. For many of the young people, it's been a challenging introduction to their country's legal underpinnings - as well as to the increasingly lost art of public speaking.

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