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High Schoolers Debate US Constitution

State teams learn respect for the shades of gray in American law

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The crew-cut high school sophomore leans forward, an earnest expression on his face, and tackles the question, "What rights does the Bill of Rights protect?"

His ad-libbed answer is action-packed, sprinkled with quotes from James Madison's essays in "The Federalist Papers," the implications of a 19th-century Supreme Court decision, and a passage from Plato's "Republic."

But no sooner does he finish than a fellow student - one of five seated before a panel of three interrogators - jumps in with a hearty "I disagree." She rattles off a different interpretation of the quote by Madison and counters the Supreme Court decision with another by the Court in 1911. Like her predecessor, she has no notes before her.

The 30 students in the room are from Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore. They and their small retinue of teachers and parents were in Washington last weekend for the finals of the national competition "We the People ... the Citizen and the Constitution." The Oregon delegation was among 1,200 high school students from every US state, territory, and the District of Columbia.

Worth the effort

The students have spent this school year studying an intense, demanding course on the Constitution and Bill of Rights that was added to the regular curricula of their schools. Despite the added workload, the students concur on one key point: The effort is definitely worthwhile.

"I joined because my friends told me how much they had learned," says Ashley Schmidt of Portland. "It's been definitely worth it, absolutely."

"Above everything else," says another Oregon student, "this course teaches you respect for the shades of gray in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the body of American law."

After the two previous competitors wind up, five new students and three new interrogators take their places at tables set in front of the audience. The next question: "How did the values and principles embodied in the Constitution shape American institutions and practices?"

For these students, it has been a year of learning that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as this debate demonstrated, are far more than seven articles amended 27 times. Their study has taken them through a maze of historic precedents, countless legal interpretations, court decisions, and the wisdom of social and legal philosophers, some of whose works have been read for more than 25 centuries.

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