Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Creating Civic Engagement Through We the People

By Sara Smith, GCDC Program Assistant

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” - Thomas Jefferson 

Analyzing this quote from one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, I took away two major points.

First, Jefferson alludes that the power of the democratic republic lies in the hands of the people. The citizens of the United States decide how the government runs by actions such as voting or communicating with elected officials.

Second, it is a disservice to the society to shrug off others that seem uninformed. Instead of eliminating people from the conversation, Jefferson urges people to engage their peers by sharing the proper information and tools to participate. If everyone had the knowledge to engage fully as an active citizen, imagine how inclusive and powerful the American political system could be.

The purpose of the We the People program is embedded in this quote. Created by the Center for Civic Education, We the People aims to educate students on the American government, how it works, its philosophical foundation and history, and their rights and responsibilities.  Educating people to develop civic competence will enhance society since the power reins in their hands.

The We the People Program is an engaging curriculum on the history and principles of the United States constitutional democratic republic with content-rich textbooks and simulated congressional hearings. The experience simultaneously deepens students’ knowledge of American history, like the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, while developing valuable skills. Through the curriculum, students practice skills such as public speaking, teamwork, conflict management, and consensus-building. Students are exposed to knowledge and competencies that are required to participate as citizens in the American political system.

As a judge of a simulated congressional hearing for We the People, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the students’ knowledge about the American Government. Prior to the hearings, the students were assigned topic questions to narrow in their research and guide their testimony. The questions required students to provide their understanding of historical and contemporary issues by reasoning and applying constitutional principles and examples to support their answers. After the students stated their testimony, the judges had the opportunity to ask students follow-up questions. These questions tested the students’ ability to critically think by applying their civic knowledge to formulate an answer.

Throughout my experience as a judge, I was astonished by the overall performance of the students. The courage that was displayed from these students to partake in the simulated hearing being judged by accredited businessmen and women was incredible to witness. It was evident how engaged the students were in their learning and the extensive research that was done before the hearing. The passion that the students have was unsurfaced when the judges were able to ask interpretive questions. It became a conversation where the students were able to voice their perspectives on the historical and current American political system based on the facts they have learned.

It was through these conversations where I became inspired by the high schoolers sitting across the table from me. Hearing how they are utilizing historical facts to drive their visions of what the future American government should look like, was a lesson that was impactful. To create a promising future, we have to learn from the triumphs and mistakes of the past. These students were a testament to Thomas Jefferson’s quote above. With exposure and involvement in the We the People program, I am confident those students have the information and tools to fulfill their civic duties and even be a driving force in future development.