Are our children too … nice?

Last week I served as a judge for a high school civics competition called “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.” The program, based on a curriculum developed by the Center for Civic Education in California, engages high school students in a mock congressional hearing testing their civic knowledge.

It’s not a contest for sissies. Questions included:

  • What are the philosophical and historical foundations of the American political system?
  • How did the Framers create the Constitution?
  • How has the Constitution been changed to further the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence?
  • How have the principles embodied in the Constitution shaped American institutions and practices?

Within the broad sweep of those queries, students are expected to be acquainted with The Federalist Papers, the writings of John Locke, and the impact of Enlightenment ideas on contemporary political thought. It’s assumed that they can distinguish between the “rule of law” and “rule by law” and that they know something about Abraham Lincoln’s use of executive power.

My hat is off to the bright students from across Pennsylvania whom I met, and to the teachers who prepared them to compete. They know an awful lot about their Constitution, their government, and their country’s history. And if some of the students’ knowledge seemed a little rote, well, they have lifetimes ahead of them to digest what they have learned and make it a part of who they are as citizens.

The contest itself was a useful reminder of an idea as old as the republic: that citizenship requires knowledge. Or as Jefferson put it, in a quote that is now part of the National Constitution Center’s Strategic Plan: “Whenever people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

It reminded me of another truth, as well: that citizenship sometimes requires taking a stand, and it’s not always easy to decide when to stand on principle and when to compromise.

As taken as I was by how well the students had prepared for the competition, I was somewhat surprised by how prepared they were to accept received opinion.

The portion of the contest I judged had to do with the creation of the Constitution and focused on its compromises with slavery. The contest involved students from diverse districts across Pennsylvania – urban, suburban and rural. All accepted those compromises as the price that had to be paid in order to gain acceptance of the Constitution in the slave-holding states and create a nation.

Citizenship sometimes requires taking a stand, and it’s not always easy to decide when to stand on principle and when to compromise.

As one student put it, the Framers were “ideal” politicians, by which he meant that they were pragmatists who practiced the art of the possible. And in the world they knew, abolishing slavery was not a realistic possibility. Rather than risk a walk-out of the southern states, the issue was left unaddressed by the delegates for future generations to decide.

That’s a perfectly acceptable viewpoint, and it’s the one reflected in the material the students used to prepare for the contest.

But it surprised me a little that, unlike at the Constitutional Convention itself, there was not a single voice of dissent. I asked the students whether the Framers could have been as creative about the issue of slavery as they were with the issue of representation in Congress, the subject of the “Great Compromise.” Had their moral imaginations failed them when it came to slavery?

No one took the bait. But in the end a young woman said that there are some issues present generations are obliged to deal with, and not pass on to the next.

And thinking about today’s budget showdown in Wisconsin and the deficits that our state and national governments are now being forced to address, it struck me that that student had learned a lesson from the contest that she could teach her elders: “ideal” political pragmatism requires an eye to the needs of the future as well as the realities of the present.

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