Yesterday was day two of the We the People competition, and we judged another 14 teams. Although there were a couple of substandard performances, most of the students we saw on Day Two ranged from impressive to phenomenal.
The opening question these teams had to answer was hardly a model of clarity. “In Federalist 51, Madison famously asserted that ‘it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.’ In what ways do the Bill of Rights and the amendments protect individuals from oppression by its rulers?”
In the process of considering that question, we posed such ancillary inquiries as: what did the Founders see as the source of our rights? What is selective incorporation? What was the purpose of the 9th and 10th Amendments? What is the difference between negative and positive rights? What is the difference between procedural and substantive due process? Why are property rights important? and many more.
The best teams answered these and other questions in depth, displaying a highly sophisticated understanding of the philosophical origins and historical context of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. At times, they made genuinely profound observations; one student, in a discussion of Madison’s description of majority and minority factions noted that size alone should not determine whether a faction is a majority or minority–that we should consider as well the power wielded by that faction. Another, during a discussion of incorporation (the application of provisions of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments) opined that such application was particularly important because smaller governmental units can more easily be dominated by special or powerful interests.
Unlike Day One, students on yesterday’s teams didn’t hesitate to criticize court rulings, or even to disagree with what James Madison said in Federalist 51.
Most of the students were high school juniors and seniors. However, after a very good presentation by one team, we discovered that the students in that team were high school freshmen, a fact making their accomplishment particularly impressive. It was obvious that–for all of the students–the process of studying the material, preparing themselves for a public examination of their knowledge, and co-ordinating responses within their teams had sharpened their skills and given them a degree of self-confidence and poise unusual for those so young.
Today, the top ten teams will compete in sessions held at the U.S. House of Representatives. If yesterday’s performance was any indication, it will be very hard to choose an overall winner. On the other hand, all these students are winners, because they understand their country’s history and government far better than most citizens.
These kids already know more than most of our lawmakers.