On October 5, I paid a visit to Constitution High School, and held my latest exchange with students from the class of teacher extraordinaire Carl Ackerman. As always, it was among the most meaningful and memorable I’ve had, the students’ insights uncommonly perceptive, their stores of wisdom uniquely profound.
I’ve been holding Socratic exchanges on the Constitution with Carl’s students since 2009, first venturing to his classroom from Williamsburg, where I’d lived at the outset and in years since, after basing myself in Philly, we’ve held meaningful give-and-takes at both the high school and at the National Constitution Center, where I was senior fellow. In our first gathering at the Constitution Center, on Constitution Day, several years ago, Carl’s students assumed with gusto the role of Framers of a ‘new’ Constitution. They proposed the creation of a federal department — the Department of Youth — and asserted that this new cabinet-level position should be headed by a young person, someone under age 18, and that young people themselves (those under 18) should be able to vote directly, yay or nay, for the person the president nominates for this position. The head of this department would be charged with helping create and steer policy on a variety of youth-related matters (many of them now relegated to other, adult-run federal departments), including health and education and civic participation. And why not? Who better to have her finger on the pulse of the needs and wants and hopes of our nation’s youth, and to make sure their voices are heeded and heard, than an actual bona fide young person?
Anyone familiar with my own view — considered, alas, ‘radical’ (not in a good way) by many adults, including many so-called progressive — is that our many millions of citizens under age 18 should have equal right to self-determination, and be given equal opportunity to achieve that. No, no, I’m told, our nation’s youngest are citizens in the making, not citizens made. No, no, I reply, each and every one of us, at every age and stage, is both a citizen-in-the-making and a citizen made at one and the same time. Besides that, I’ve found again and again, our youngest citizens are often our most astute when it comes to civic and political matters; they care deeply about the state and straits of our nation, are dismayed by the puerile behavior of our members of Congress, and, if given half a chance, would take the bull by the horns and right things themselves, first and foremost by setting an example of a forward-looking, participatory politics.
Little wonder, then, that when I launched the Declaration Project, I set my sights on paying another visit to Constitution High, to visit with Carl’s class of 2015-16, to exhort them to post personal declarations on our MyDeclaration page. The students were enthused from the get-go, and more than rose to the occasion. Their submissions are among the most stirring that have been posted, and they are imbued with the rabble-rousing Spirit of ’76. They range from an eloquent and moving Declaration of Independence from Silence, a genuine kindred spirit of our original July 4, 1776 document, to a declaration ending police brutality, to one that calls for an end to sexism in all its pernicious forms.
I’ve now challenged the students, now that they’ve put into clear focus what they believe our nation’s most glaring shortcomings to be, to also be a part of the solution, and to develop projects that address that issue they’ve singled out that they maintain that our nation must address of its promise and ideals are to be brought into ever greater alignment with actual practice. It looks like several will take me up on this challenge. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, read their declarations (and all the others posted on our site), immerse yourselves in them, and consider commenting on them. After all, a primary purpose of this site, meant to be the go-to place for all things ‘declarational,’ is to foster thoughtful interactive engagement. And engage with our young people as equals, as fellow citizens who richly deserve the same opportunities as all the rest of us to be an equally contributing player in what is supposed to be a supremely open society. Our young people recognize the hypocrisy of all individuals, groups and institutions that claim to speak for and espouse the values of ‘we the people,’ yet all too often are elitist and hierarchical (with our youngest always looked down on and put on the low end of the proverbial totem pole), and with the all too evident attitude that they could never learn from our youngest citizens. Yet I’ve found repeatedly that not only do the insights of our youngest enhance my own practical and scholarly undertakings at every turn, they often are quite wiser than the ‘elites.’
Check out their wise and passionate words and see for yourselves. All I’m really saying, I suppose, is give young people a real chance, a genuine shot at equal participation and self-determination, and they will wow you. When we deliberately leave them out of our democratic experiment, we do so to the detriment of us all.