- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

While president of what was then Washington College, Robert E. Lee insisted that demands on students not damage their health, but merely come as close to it as possible. Having taught in the recently completed Junior Statesmen Summer School at Georgetown University, I can say with some assurance that the general would have approved of the program and that its success over the past half-century should give high school reformers heart.For what the Junior Statesmen Schools do is to provide top high schoolers with a taste of college for three or four weeks each summer at leading university campuses. The students, drawn from throughout the United States and its territories, study American government, constitutional law, speech, economics or foreign policy with college professors. The lectures they attend, the essay tests they take and the term papers they write are all college-level. The workload is formidable: six hours of class, two and a half of debate, and more hours of reading, research, and writing every day, six days a week interrupted only for speakers' days, which feature several hours of briefings by national leaders.

Surprisingly, the work of these 15-to-17-year-olds is largely indistinguishable from that of 18-to-21-year-old undergraduates. One of my students this summer wrote a substantial term paper on recent Supreme Court decisions regarding sovereign immunity and federalism. Another probed the originalism in Justice Robert Taney's Dred Scott opinion. On the final exam, students effectively explained such matters as the selective and total incorporation theories of the 14th Amendment's due process clause. The difference between the minds of these students and those of college students is hardly proportionate to the gulf that separates high school and college curricula.

Alas, the cure for high school fill-in-the-blank work is not making the blanks to be filled in slightly longer. What is needed is a change in school culture, together with more nourishing fare, as Mortimer Adler's important "Paideia Proposal" urged a generation ago. That work, based on the deliberations of a distinguished group of college and university administrators, put its finger precisely on the problem. Public school students spend plenty of hours being talked at, taking notes, reciting and committing facts to memory. But when, it rightly asks, have their minds been addressed? In what connection have they been called upon to think for themselves, to respond to important questions and to raise them themselves, to pursue an argument, to defend a point of view, to understand its opposite, to weigh alternatives?

Unfortunately, transforming a high school's culture as substantially as the "Paideia Proposal" advises is difficult when the administrators, teachers, students and setting all remain the same. Two much memory and too many old habits and associations remain. This is the real reason that charter schools, vouchers and closures of the more spectacularly failing schools are necessary.

Because the Junior Statesmen Schools are temporary and residential, they can neatly sidestep the cultural problem. They gather top high schoolers on leading campuses, settings far from the customary distractions and ideal for inspiring seriousness, to work with college professors and with top university students serving as counselors. A new community and a serious academic culture take root almost at once. Problems worth weighing, like Madison's cure for factions or John Marshall's case for judicial review, are soon being explored in detail. Debates on leading contemporary issues round out the program and teach the back and forth of effective thought by making deliberation about public and accessible and therefore easier to master.

Although the Junior Statesmen are hardly your typical high schoolers, still, the ease with which they take to college-level work is eye-opening. An increasing number of colleges and universities have had the same insight and are therefore offering high schoolers summer enrichment programs and admission even to their regular courses. It seems clear, then, that high school as we know it is not really necessary. Something a lot closer to college would be possible, if we would respect high schoolers for their minds and give them materials worthy of their time and talent. The success of the Junior Statesmen Schools for over half-a-century provides encouraging evidence of what might be done.

David A. Nordquest is a writer and teacher living in Erie, Pa.

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