At a time when hope for our governmental system was ebbing during the fiscal cliff crisis, several hundred young Hoosiers gathered at IUPUI to refute despair.
“We the People” is an annual statewide and national competition. It is focused on the citizen and the Constitution and sponsored by the Indiana Bar Foundation.
Bemoan the quality of education in our state and you are unaware of this volunteer effort by teachers, students, parents and administrators to teach the fundamentals of our government and its founding document. It is one of the good apples in the barrel many decry.
District meets send 12 junior high and 12 senior high school teams to the state competition. From there, the state senior high victor goes on to the national level. Hundreds of students, their teachers, parents and grandparents watch as small panels of competitors answer questions from volunteer judges about the meaning of the Constitution and its relevance to today.
The competition is conducted with dignity and respect and thereby differs from the congressional hearings after which it is modeled.
These students tackle basic questions about federalism, questions that often baffle our elected offices. They understand the conflicts of interest and preferences that underlie current issues and often confound the justices who must decide cases based on fundamentals.
As the panels of judges rotate from the rooms housing individual schools, the tension grows. Could this next group possibly exceed the performance of the last? The judges ask questions and lead discussions centered on specific topics such as the responsibilities of citizens, our basic constitutional rights and the nature of federalism.
Students, often with voices barely audible due to nervousness, have prepared opening statements but are tested by the judges, whose follow-up questions are frequently politically hot topics in today’s newspapers. Some judges guide the students who seem most tentative, while others will challenge the more confident students.
Not all schools in Indiana participate, although their students would benefit from being part of “We the People.” Many of this year’s teams come from metropolitan Indianapolis as well as from Fort Wayne and Evansville, Gas City and Munster, Nashville and Bunker Hill. Their preparation ranges from outstanding to very good and is a function of their teachers’ and parents’ interest in the program.
The result is a festival — a celebration of well-prepared youth and the still-young ideas that bind this nation. Here there are no political factions or parties. There is only the contest of ideas and the civility expected of those who live by and support the rule of law.
Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.