- - Tuesday, September 8, 2015

In order for us to preserve our system of ordered liberty, American society must rely on the knowledge, skills, and virtue of its citizens and those we elect to public office. That is what prompted Thomas Jefferson to proclaim, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

In 1987, during the celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, an education program was developed called “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” that responded to Jefferson’s concern about the need for an enlightened citizenry. We the People is an innovative curricular and professional development program designed to involve students from a wide range of achievement levels and with varied learning styles at the upper elementary, middle, and senior high school levels in an intensive study of the principles and history of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. More than 30 million students have participated since the program began in 1987.

The foundation of We the People is the classroom curriculum, which not only enhances students’ understanding of the institutions of American constitutional democracy, but also helps them to identify the contemporary relevance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Critical-thinking exercises, problem-solving activities, and cooperative-learning techniques develop participatory skills and dispositions necessary for students to become active, responsible citizens.

The program’s culminating activity is a simulated congressional hearing wherein students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge by evaluating, taking, and defending positions on relevant historical and contemporary issues. The hearings, whether competitive or noncompetitive, provide the classroom teacher with a powerful means of motivating and assessing student performance. They also provide community members the opportunity to participate as judges and volunteers for the student hearings. See www.civiced.org.

Each year, state champion high school classes compete at the We the People National Finals in Washington, D.C. On the last day the top-ten classes testify in congressional hearing rooms on Capitol Hill. The late journalist David Broder attended this event and wrote in his nationally syndicated column that the annual competition was “the place to come to have your faith in the younger generation restored.”

People from an array of professions serve as judges at local, state, and national competitions, posing questions to the students on important constitutional issues and adding the perspective and knowledge of their experience. Some of these community members include judicial officials. A justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court described the program, “The We the People program is without peer. I’ve personally heard brilliance and wisdom coming from the mouths of high school students that wouldn’t have emerged but for the program.”

We the People has been the subject of more than 20 studies that show its success in producing positive outcomes. Recent research by Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University has found the We the People teacher institutes and curriculum to be remarkably effective. Students who take a We the People class not only know more about their constitutional heritage and contemporary applications, but are more likely to believe that it is their responsibility to be involved in their community than students who take traditional civics classes.

Perhaps the most telling assessments of the program come from former students. In the words of an attorney from the California Department of Justice:

“We the People changed my life. It’s as simple as that. Any and all academic, personal, or professional success I’ve enjoyed can, in some way, be traced to my participation in the program as a high school student 16 years ago. We the People taught me more than any other class I’ve taken—in high school, college, or law school. It taught me how to learn, how to think, how to work on a team, how to be a friend, how to speak in public, how to listen, how to write, how to take constructive criticism, how to give it, how to believe in myself, and how to rely on others. We the People taught me that citizens—of all ages, from anywhere—can shape national policy. We the People taught me to believe in this country.

While many institutions such as the family, the church, and social organizations help forge a person’s civic character and propensity to participate, civic education in the schools is the one common experience American citizens share that helps them acquire and learn to use the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that prepare them to be competent and responsible contributors to our civic life. Using a proven program like We the People, the schools can help fulfill the Founders’ aspirations and preserve our constitutional legacy by giving our youth the intellectually rich and engaged education they need to participate fully in their own governance and help to make our nation one that truly is ‘of, by, and for the people.’”

• Charles Quigley is Executive Director of The Center for Civic Education. For more information, please visit www.civiced.org.

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