Okay, I’m officially worried.
I’m currently in Fairfax, Virginia, on the (really beautiful) campus of George Mason University; I’m here as one of the 71 judges of the national “We the People” finals. For those who don’t know anything about “We the People,” it is probably the single most effective civics curriculum being used in the U.S. Unfortunately, its use is entirely voluntary–teachers can choose to adopt it for junior and senior government classes, but it is entirely up to them.
Students in WTP classes study the history and philosophy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When they c0mplete the semester, most know a great deal more about the nation’s founding documents than most adults. The conclusion of the course–which was an outgrowth of Warren Burger’s Bicentennial Commission–is a competition modeled upon congressional hearings. Each class is divided into six teams, each assigned to one of the six units in the textbook. The teams are grilled by three-judge “panels” to ascertain their mastery of the subject-matter, first in competitions held in each congressional district, and then at the state level. The state winner goes to the national finals.
I am a member of one of those three-judge panels, and my team’s assignment was Unit 5–the Bill of Rights. Our assignment was focused upon the First Amendment, and our questions were intended to determine what the students knew about the philosophy and jurisprudence of Free Speech. We saw 14 teams yesterday, and we will see another 14 today.
The good news is that all of the students on all of the teams displayed impressive knowledge of the origins and jurisprudence of free speech. They could quote the Founders, they could recite the case law, identify the jurists, and report the reasoning of each case.
The bad news is that students on most of the teams we reviewed accepted the logic of those cases without question. If the Court said that suppression of expression was acceptable in a particular situation, then it was. The case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, for example, held that high school newspapers can be censored by school administrators. The decision has been heavily criticized in the 25 years since it was handed down, and in some states, legislatively overruled. And yet many of the students, when asked, dutifully parroted the holding and defended its logic by arguing that students “need to be protected from ‘inappropriate’ information.” They similarly had no problem with the decision in Buckley v. Valeo that money equals speech, and expressed no qualms that Citizens United might result in giving some speakers the ability to drown out the speech of those with fewer dollars to spend.
When questioned about efforts to restrict speech during wartime, several students defended the right of government to impose censorship “for public safety.” And in at least two cases, they seemed willing to give in to the “heckler’s veto”–to agree that government could suppress public speeches if those speeches had potential to create public disturbances.
Students were generally unwilling to disagree with or criticize past Court decisions, even those that have subsequently been narrowed or abandoned. If I had to characterize their approach, I would call it docile or submissive. If there’s a law, these kids will obey it, no matter how unreasonable it may be. We didn’t see many who are likely to protest, or engage in civil disobedience, and even in this era of anti-government sentiment, we saw a troubling number who seemed willing to believe that government always knows best.
I hasten to say that there were many exceptions, and that we only saw half of the competing teams. Three or four of those teams (including one from Indiana) were outstanding–thoughtful, analytic and articulate. And I understand that we’ll see some of the stronger teams today. But most of the competitors are here because they won a state-level contest, and I can’t help wondering about the prevalence among them of a meek and unquestioning acceptance of authority.
They’re teenagers, for heaven’s sake! If they aren’t going to question authority now, how docile will they be when they have children and a mortgage?