May 18, 2013
The study of civics has been a longtime endeavor for Robert Leming, who is the director of the Center for Civic Education’s We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program. A passionate student of Constitutional history, he has headed up the program for the past 10 years and is dedicated to its goal “to promote civic competence and responsibility among the nation’s elementary and secondary students.” The extensive and challenging instructional program enhances students’ understanding of the institutions of American constitutional democracy and the contemporary relevance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The culminating activity, a simulated congressional hearing in which students “testify” before a panel of judges, is the memorable touchstone We the People experience for students. Mr. Leming directs the planning and implementation of the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution National Finals, which annually brings approximately 1,300 students and teachers to Washington, D.C. in May. In addition, the program provides free professional development opportunities for teachers and professors, civic leaders, and CCE state coordinators. Since the program began in 1987, it has hosted more than 28 million students and 90 thousand educators. Mr. Leming holds three degrees from Indiana University: a bachelor’s (1977) and master’s (1984) in social studies education, and a doctorate in curriculum (1998). He is a member of The Bill of Rights Institute Advisory Board and a recipient of the Citizen’s Awareness of the Law Award, sponsored by the American Lawyers Auxiliary. Currently, Robert resides in California. We spoke with him in late September, as he was ready to embark on the intensive four-day Navajo Nation Experience with 50 teachers.
Technos: Do you think it’s important for young people/students to get involved in the 2008 election?
Mr. Leming: Obviously, the answer is yes. What we really want is not just involvement—but enlightened involvement, based on knowledge of the principles and ideas that our democracy is based on as presented in our Constitution and founding documents. The genius of the Constitution is that it gives power to the people, the citizens, of this country. But just giving power can be dangerous, unless the people are educated in the fundamentals of our government. Do we want kids involved? Of course. But we want them involved in an effective manner. In other words: By the time they get out of high school, they will be able to participate in local, state, and national government in an informed manner.
I’d also like to point out that most Americans are busy people…we have to work, so we don’t have all the time in the world to get involved in every political issue. We often hold the Greeks and Romans up as exemplary participants in their governments. But we forget that they had slaves to do all their work, so they had time to be so involved. James Madison rejected these types of democracies because they failed.
What are the best ways that teachers can engage students in civic participation? How has the Center for Civic Education helped teachers?
The Center for Civic Education and the We the People program provide the tools—the content and strategies—that allow students to make informed decisions about government. At the center of this is the question: Why do we even have government? I would point to James Madison’s Federalist Papers # 51, which I think is the definitive statement about government:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Madison said that people are the primary check on government. But, if the people aren’t enlightened, educated about how their governmental institutions operate, they can do more harm than good. We live in a constitutional representative democracy. In other words, we elect fellow citizens to do the work of government, which is limited by the Constitution, and hope they’ll do the right thing. And, if the people are enlightened, they will know if and when their representatives aren’t behaving responsibly. The ultimate check by the people is the ability to vote their representatives out of office. James Madison wasn’t suggesting a Utopian form of government, but one that was least imperfect.
He also suggested that the end—or the purpose—of government is liberty and justice. Democracy, by itself could be dangerous because of the possibility of the tyranny of the majority. It’s important that young people understand this before they decide to be actively involved in government. If they don’t have an understanding of democratic principles and ideas and knowledge about how their government works, they’re really not enlightened citizens, just sheep following the leader.
You’ve worked with many teenagers through We the People…do you agree with those who say that today’s young people are cynical about government and don’t feel that they have a voice in their government?
It’s probably a good idea to be a little cynical. I don’t think kids are any worse today than they ever were. My opinion is that kids haven’t changed since Romeo and Juliet—they’re still rebelling against the establishment and questioning everything. I remember in the 1960s when parents were convinced that the younger generation was going to hell in a hand basket because of rock & roll and wanted to banish the Beatles. Somehow we all made it through that.
Do you see any advantages in using technology to engage teachers and students in civic participation?
Definitely. For teachers, we’ve developed a Web site as a companion to the new high-school edition of the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution textbook—and it is basically one-stop shopping for resources that teachers can use any time, including an interactive teacher’s guide. In return, we’re getting some great feedback from them as to what else they need or want through the Web site. We’ve found that there is a vast We the People “family” of teachers who communicate by cell phone and e-mail on local, state, and national levels. Now, we want to provide more online collaboration for them, so they can continue to share ideas with each other without the cost of traditional professional development. We can offer them access to Constitutional scholars, university professors, and mentor-teachers via live chat and podcasts—whatever works.
I still believe that good learning hasn’t changed since Socrates: one on one, face to face, is still the best way to convey and receive ideas and information. But teachers can’t always get that, so we’ve found the Internet has been especially helpful in sharing resources, lesson plans, and links to experts.
What’s the best part of your job?
I think the best part is interacting with the kids in the We the People program. I know that, by the time they’re finished with their simulated congressional hearings, they can demonstrate both verbally and in writing their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and its principles, as well as the rights and responsibilities of American citizens. They don’t just give rote answers; they’re thinking critically, analyzing, and coming to reasoned conclusions. They also don’t just stop at voting…they take their civic responsibility a step further and often decide to run for office. One of our We the People Alumni is Marco Lopez, who became the youngest mayor in the United States when he was elected mayor of Nogales, Arizona, at the age of 22. We’re not necessarily trying to develop attorneys and/or elected officials, but good citizens. I know that whether these kids become plumbers, farmers, astronauts, or U.S. senators, all of them will be participants in the democratic process.
Another thing we’ve observed is that the We the People kids tend to think at a higher level and discuss issues in a much more sophisticated manner than their non-We the People peers. The ones who go on to college challenge their professors and aren’t afraid to question some of the conclusions presented to them in textbooks and the classroom.
Who were your role models and/or mentors? How and when did you first become involved with the Center for Civic Education and We the People?
One of my important mentors in life was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in Hawaii, Miss Takano. When I became a teacher in 1977 in Grand Rapids, MI, I realized the huge impact she’d had on my learning. Ten years later, an important event occurred that made quite an impression: The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the time, Warren Burger, resigned his judgeship to head up the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. Another important influence on my life was when Chuck Quigley, Margaret Branson, and Duane Smith, from the Center for Civic Education received a grant from the Bicentennial Commission to develop the We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution textbook and program. I became the We the People state coordinator for Indiana in January 1988, while a graduate student at Indiana University, and there I had the honor and privilege of studying with and working for Dr. John Patrick. In 1998, I became the national director of the We the People program.
Another important historical event that occurred in 1989 was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Center for Civic Education soon realized that emerging democracies around the world would need help from the United States. At present, the Center works with nearly 70 countries in developing classroom materials on constitutional principles and ideas.
What’s next on your agenda?
The Center for Civic Education believes that professional development for teachers is extremely important. To that end, we have developed numerous summer institutes on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for upper-elementary, middle-, and high-school teachers. In addition, the Center is developing weekend seminars on various topics. I call them “touching history” seminars because they take place at historical locations. For example, there are seminars at James Madison’s Montpelier; on Chief Justice John Marshall in conjunction with the John Marshall Foundation; on the Civil Rights Movement in conjunction with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; on the Founders with Professor John Kaminski at the University of Wisconsin; and the Navajo Nation Experience. The important aspect of these seminars is that the teachers interact with scholars and other individuals related to the topic. For example, at the Civil Rights Movement seminar in Birmingham, Alabama, the teacher participants have the opportunity to interact with people like Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who invited Dr. Martin Luther King to Birmingham in 1963; Dorothy Cotton, who was the director of citizenship education for Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and “foot soldiers” who participated in the children’s marches in May of 1963.
This month 50 teachers will attend the four-day Navajo Nation Experience seminar in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. They’ll interact with Navajo scholars and teachers to learn about Navajo history, culture, and government. These kinds of “touching history” seminars can be life changing. Good professional development offers sound content and pedagogy. But if you can add the “touching history” component, it can be great.
The Center also provides professional development for college and university school of education professors. The focus of the various seminars and institutes is to help professors develop a better understanding of civic education and its role in pre-service education.
Any final thoughts on your work with We the People?
Two more things:
First, while I enjoy being part of such celebrations as Constitution Day (Sept. 17), I’m not sure it’s the best way to honor our Constitution. Civic education should be an integral part of all schooling.
Second, I’d like to remind people of the words written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The history of this country has been to ensure that the word “all” really means all. And that that the word “we” in “We the people” of the Preamble of the Constitution really means we.
Robert Leming may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.