Wyoming Students Show Off Knowledge of Constitution; Thomas Foundations Awards $50K to ‘We the People’
These kids are all right, and probably know a lot more about the U.S. Constitution than you do.
"Classical republicanism has its roots in Greek and Roman philosophy," Sheridan High School student Stephanie Gonda said during the annual "We the People" competition at the Ramkota Hotel on Tuesday.
Fellow student David Wold added, "Cicero, a Roman scholar, said 'a nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious, but cannot survive an enemy from within.'"
And Taylor Katschke followed with, "Unifying the people of a nation under one banner, that of the common good, is the force that drives classical republicanism; whereas the natural rights philosophy promotes the individual over the common good."
That's no small civics lesson.
Sheridan was among 16 participating high schools, and the six winners will go to Laramie in February for the state finals, said "We the People's" state coordinator Matt Strannigan. The winner will advance to the national finals in Washington, D.C., in April. "We the People" is a civic education program that helps students understand the history and principles of constitutional government, he said.
"We the People" in Wyoming received an added boost when Susan Thomas of the Craig and Susan Thomas Foundation donated $50,000 to the nonprofit organization.
"These young people have the demeanor, they have the desire to be involved in this; we need this in the country very badly right now," Thomas said after presenting the check.
"I hear more than ever, 'politics is a dirty word,'" she said. "I don't agree with that at all. That's how we run our country. Democracy is a messy, messy business."
Democracy is messy, but it has a method to it as does the "We the People" competition.
Each school competes separately in what is called a "flight," which is conducted like a closed congressional hearing with no one allowed to enter after the doors are closed.
During the two-hour flight, a panel of judges interviews a group of three students, with each group having 10 minutes for a prepared answer to a question in one of six categories. After that, the judges then evaluate their answer and sometimes press them about their sources.
After each 10-minute session, a different group of three students responds to a different question from a different set of judges.
One of the judges was, in fact, a real judge: Chief U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl. Other judges were attorneys, teachers, prosecutors, and members of civic organizations.
Students from Sheridan High School carry a tradition of being among the best in the state not only for their research but their tradition of wearing black suits, white shirts and striped ties with the blue and gold school colors.
To start this flight, judge and Riverton social studies teacher Kristy Richmond asked Wold, Katschke and Gorda this: "The Framers created a form of government that embodied bot th enatural rigths and classical republican philosophies. What are the basic ideas of the natural rights and classical republican philosophies and how might they conflict?"
The students responded with rapid-fire references to 20th century political commentator Walter Lippman, Cicero, "Leviathan" author Thomas Hobbes, President John F. Kennedy, the Declaration of Independence, President Thomas Jefferson, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, 17th century English philosopher John Locke, and federal government skeptic and Bill of Rights advocate George Mason.
They said the Declaration of Independence emphasizes inalienable natural rights, whereas the Preamble focuses more on classical republicanism in that government's purpose is to provide for the common defense and the common good.
Those philosophies, which address how government should operate, will eventually clash, the students said. In recent years, the natural rights philosophy has superseded classical republicanism in recent debates over gun control and Native American voting rights, they said.
With that introduction, Gorda told the judges, "We are now ready to take your questions."