Today our president was scheduled to deliver the State of the Union address. (As of my deadline, it appears the event will not proceed.) I could easily join the chorus and pronounce our union to be in dire straits. The partial government shutdown interrupted much-needed services, malfeasance dominates the headlines, and a clash between white schoolboys and a Native American elder on our National Mall has further entrenched the public into opposing camps.
It is a time when nothing feels sacred, least of all those values spelled out in the preamble to the Constitution: establishing justice, promoting general welfare, and securing “the Blessings of Liberty” for posterity. Our leaders can’t seem to figure out how to proceed for the next few months, much less for posterity. Like you, I am gravely concerned.
And yet, a couple of weeks ago I witnessed a promising event. On Jan. 16, Bismarck State College hosted the North Dakota state competition for We the People, a civic education program in which students learn the history and principles of U.S. constitutional democracy. High school teams from as far away as Edgeley and Hillsboro gathered for mock congressional hearings, judged by expert panelists including political science professors and North Dakota Supreme Court justices.
Each team of students, attired in blazers or dresses or both, delivered a prepared argument and then answered questions on topics ranging from the role of political parties to the limits of presidential emergency powers, to opinions on youth suffrage. Their answers often cited court cases and historical precedent, and the students received feedback on both content and presentation skills.
Full disclosure, I am a board member of Humanities North Dakota, a We the People program partner. I did not initially intend to write about this event, but in short, I was blown away by these kids.
In one hearing, a student proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ persons. “Then why,” a judge asked, “hasn’t the United States passed the Equal Rights Amendment for women?” (Good question.) “Perhaps because our lawmakers remain overwhelmingly male,” the student responded.
In another room, judges asked for student opinions on the Skokie affair of 1977, when a group of neo-Nazis planned a march through the majority Jewish suburb of Skokie, Ill. The neo-Nazis, defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, were allowed by the courts to march — but what is the right answer, especially when you learn one in six people in Skokie was a Holocaust survivor? How does this precedent apply to recent events? Where does freedom of speech end?
As contest judge Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle acknowledged, these are not easy questions, and there may not be a single right answer. But these are the questions we much wrestle with, and reach consensus on, as a society.
I applaud these students and their teachers, and offer congratulations to Bismarck Century’s team, which will travel to the national finals in April. I strongly feel we need to support these and similar efforts to practice thoughtful debate and good-faith disagreement, rather than perpetuate a culture where debate is framed only as people talking past each other.
The National Endowment for the Humanities — closed for the shutdown — was founded on the tenet that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. Thanks to rectifying constitutional amendments, “we the people” finally includes all of us. We are in this American experiment together. My sincere hope is that we all work toward a more perfect and just union. Engaging youth in our democracy is a crucial place to start.