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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Let the Students Speak: Bring Back Convention II, a High School Civics Program

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution by Junius Brutus Stearns (teachingamericanhistory.org)

Shortly after the Bicentennial, Bob Feinman, my father, created Convention II. It was a mock constitutional convention run by and for high school students. It was not about laws but about amendments. The students would propose, debate, and sometimes even ratify changes to the Constitution. The 2/3 vote requirement for passage made it difficult but not impossible for a proposed amendment to pass.

Convention II was held in Washington, D.C., in the House of Representatives. The students for and against a given amendment would debate the proposed amendments in the various committee and meeting rooms of the House of Representatives. If the proposed amendment was voted out of committee then it would be debated before the full body of students. That debate occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives, a chamber rarely used on weekends. I am sure the tourists who entered the chamber and looked down were first shocked to find people there, second shocked to find out they were young people, and third shocked to find out that the speakers made sense. Again, for the students from around the country who didn’t know each other to garner support for their favorite amendments during a weekend of no sleep was part of the learning experience.

As reported in the Washington Post “Constitutional Parley Tests Students’ Skills At Lawmaking”:

Convention II, the only outside organization allowed to meet on the floor of the House, where participants wound up the five-day convention on Saturday, is run by Southeastern University’s Center for the Study of Federalism, based in the District.

The program was born eight years ago in the mind of New Rochelle, N.Y., politician and lobbyist Boris Feinman, who “got fed up and annoyed with the stupidity of most people about their form of government and how it works,” he said. He set out to put excitement back into learning the political process.

Feinman said Convention II is “an experience the students will remember for years to come.” It is not only an exercise in governmental procedures, he said, but a lesson in human relationships.

“We’ve got all kinds of people in there, from the coal miner’s kid to the Harvard-Ivy League type. But at the end of a four-day pressure-cooker session here, you’d be surprised at how these kids respond. They’ll sling away verbally at each other. But what comes out is a beautiful understanding of each other based on practical political dealings.”

My father’s hope was that a college in the District of Columbia (or elsewhere) would adopt the program. He did have some brief success with Southeastern University but the financial support wasn’t there and it was unable to sustain the program. My father labored on because for him it was a labor love. He believed democracy was a hands-on sport and the that the future adult citizens in a democratic society needed hands-on training and preparation if they were to be ready for the job as adults.

Over the years, my father had worked at all grade levels to bring students into the political arena where the sausage is made. In New Rochelle, NY, where we lived he brought elementary school students into the city council chambers. The students sat in the chairs of the mayor and council people and debated local issues. He traveled to the county seat in White Plains and the state capital in Albany before taking it to the next step and the floor of the House of Representatives.

One thing you quickly realize along they way is that for the most part these rooms are empty. Our legislators don’t have 9-5 five days a week 52 weeks a year jobs. There is always space available if someone asks and if the legislators are willing. Usually my father would begin the process through his own representative at the local, county, and state level. Working on the Bicentennial helped introduce him to other people at the federal level. For awhile he even was sharing an apartment with multiple Representatives who don’t buy homes in D.C. but room together to minimize expenses. I believe that arrangement still exists today. In any event, it did pay off and my father was able to bring high school students into the House of Representatives where they debated proposed amendments to the Constitution.

I doubt if such access would be possible today. I also wonder if the mock convention would even work. Security procedures have changed since then. The atmosphere is much more contentious now then it was back then – each of the two political parties undoubtedly would want to make sure that the student participants voiced only acceptable positions and didn’t support passage of something crazy. However it would be easier to televise the proceedings and give all Americans a glimpse into the level of discourse of which high school students are capable.

On the other hand, we have just seen that happen in the real world. Right now in a still ongoing process students are taking the lead where adults fear to tread. Death of fellow students has sparked the survivors to action in the adult world. They are seeking change and are politicking the adult legislators to affect such changes. Whether they will succeed or not is not yet known and what any legislated changes might actually pass also remains unknown. Still, this effort is civics in the raw complete with a televised visit to the White House with the President of the United States and appearances on TV news and talk shows. A mock convention this is not.

We also have had the opportunity to observe the reaction by some Americans to the sight and sound of these survivors calling for action so never again would such a massacre occur. We have heard that these outspoken students are not really survivors but actors. We have heard that the students are not expressing their thoughts but are reciting lines they have been coached to speak as if they were carrying cards to remind them of what to say. We have heard that the parents of the survivors who speak out have received death threats. We have heard that the impassioned words, emotional collapses, and call for change are all part of prepackaged show, that trained performers are dispatched at a moments notice to travel to sites of disaster to proclaim their anti-American agenda. We should realize that there is no “come let us reason together” between people who inhabitant alternate universes is possible.

All the more reason for restoring to civics to the k-12 curriculum. If Americans when growing up don’t learn how to talk to each other, then there is little likelihood they will develop that skill as adults. If all debates assume apocalyptic proportion as a cosmic fight for the fate of the universe, then no change for the better is possible. Perhaps watching our kids debate in the halls of power will become as highly watched as some other competitions.

There was a time once before when students, more likely in college than high school, spoke out for change. At that time the death they sought to avoid was their own death over there, in Vietnam, and not here in their own schools. The President responded with a call for more guns in Vietnam. He became a one term President who chose not to risk the wrath of the American voter. This time the President called for more guns in the school. How will the students react this time? How will the voters react?

8 thoughts on “Let the Students Speak: Bring Back Convention II, a High School Civics Program

  1. HISTORY TEACHING TODAY: A few days ago in a conversation with a young may…about twenty two years old….I mentioned that the atom bomb probably saved my life.(My amphibious ship was scheduled sail along the invasion beaches of Japan before the invasion and shell the beaches, then land before the marines and shoot into the land before they landed.) The young man asked “Who dropped the atom bomb, We or the Japanese?”

  2. Well Peter, I tried to follow the link to comment but it didn’t seem to offer a place to comment so I just hit “reply”. I hope that is OK?

    Of course, bringing opposing thoughts together in real time to discuss and debate an issue always builds understanding and bridges no matter how much we don’t want that to happen. Of course, the best that a convention can accomplish is to bring about 500 students together each year. Heck, that isn’t even one student per county across this nation, es, it certainly helps the understanding of the select 500 and true if the videos were distributed you might reach a few more….but no school is going to find or allocate hours and hours worth of time so their students can partake.

    I loved your comment that there were certain groups who thought this was all a put up job with scripts and actors.

    I do think your father was onto something though….we need to brainstorm those ideas to see if we can use this concept to build something new….an approach that would in fact reach many more students across the spectrum of schools and students from all economic and political strata here in the United States.

    The problem we will face involves all the many current mandates layered onto our schools, teachers and students already. They hardly have time to pay attention to the three Rs. We know that the three Rs are the basis on which everything else is built. A major travesty is the fact that a majority of our students from schools in marginal economic areas can’t read or write. Everyday I am faced with adults at cash registers in stores who are incapable of making change if for some reason the readout on the register isn’t working. I am not a genius by any means, however, I’ve already added the bill in my head and made the mental change so I know exactly what I should be receiving back. When I question them, they are totally dumbfounded to say the least.
    These young people are not prepared….who is at fault? I don’t know but I do know that we are spending huge amounts of time in schools covering mandated topics like bicycle safety….etc. There is nothing wrong with bicycle safety but when it short changes the 3 Rs we have a problem.

    Well, I got way off track but you understand how complex this is and the solutions are evading s right now.

    Hell Yes – we need class time in/on “civics” and we need to bring diverse groups together to examine the issues in our society and the young people are certainly the place to begin before they get really dumb.

    Tell me how I can help….I mean that and I suspect my wife will help as well…heck, she’s a whole lot brighter than I am.

    1. Why not start in Wayne County with your own legislative building. Whether the students meet to discuss amendments to the federal constitution, state constitution, or local laws really doesn’t matter as much as the experience. At some point you could even develop a scope and sequence whereby as the students age they experience different levels of government starting with their local one. There is no right or wrong way in this regard as long as they are getting hands on experience in an educational manner.

  3. Peter: Just read your interesting blog (bcc: read below this email) re: your father’s passion of teaching self-govt and debate in the very DC House of Reps. with students! No wonder you are such a great thinker/blogger on history!

    New info from former teacher of this FL Douglass “massacre: h.s. and his own background story:
    I wasn’t able to write down the details at the time, but about 2 pm this afternoon on live RUSH FL radio a former teacher from the Broward Douglas HS got on the air and spilled the beans from his own first hand experience. Supt of Schools was hired from CHICAGO and was hired to bring with him Project__________ (sorry did not catch the name) to basically train the kids (NOTE: I did not say “educate” as your Dad did) into the tactics of immediate group think/political activism which he in good time observed from inside the school.

    Whatever the issue was within a really short time of this Project _____ instituted, this teacher reported how the hallways were full of kids with signs, speeches, etc. for whatever … The teacher thought it was much too FAST/Professional etc. for any group of even the brightest/best students to do this on their own. He then learned that this stagong was the behind the scenes working of the Supt and the Chicago-style Project _________ and a few h.s. instructors who were also trained in this same Chicago Project The T. had never seen anything like that “standout moment” before in his years of teaching — happen so spontaneously and effectively.

    Later, the teacher learned that one star athlete had paid for some school fundraiser with a counterfeit $20 bill, and other bills like that had also appeared in the school cafe.

    When the caller went to report what appeared to be an ILLEGAL SCAM –not to mention a ripoff of funds for the school– the Supt’s reply to the T. was
    “You don’t want to interfere with his student’s scholarships/college acceptance and future, now would you?” (paraphrased)

    No action was taken. This T/caller left teaching there sometime after, one way or the other, wanting no part of this deception.

    But for me: THIS first person anecdote was first hand evidence from a very believable and honest eye-witness that corruption was AOK with the same present Supt of Schools where this DREADFUL massacre occurred.

    It won’t change the outcome of this horror, BUT this does raise red flags as to what precedents have been set by those who would allow one form of corruption for expediency/personal favors/influence or ? of their own agenda, and would therefore set the groundwork for other such corrupt occurrences in the future.
    The very fact that it appears how underage children are being USED by political activists is NOT surprising to me, having taught in MA my entire career where
    certain ideologies reign supreme in Administrations and Unions–and they get away with it.

    When all of the facts now coming out –like this teacher’s testimony and many others about what was OVERLOOKED/IGNORED by the professionals/police/FBI/etc, it makes me suspicious that forces beyond ethics and truth are far more overwhelming in this case than in any other school shooting of the past.

    Also, those of us who are citizens of these parts of central FL, the minute you mention Dade/Broward counties, the hairs on the back of our necks stand up b/c of the reputation on just about everything: illegal immigration/LGBT rights etc. as though D/B were on another planet.

    I admit, when I first heard the h.s. activists speak out within 2 days of the massacre, I was impressed and noted they did NOT sound like any other kids
    from the same shootings elsewhere. “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste” sprang up in my mind, which I dismissed b/c I realized this was clearly an economic above average h.s. with college educated/professional families who would have had superior communication/organization skills than most other places.

    But it just all seemed too SLICK and too FAST, esp. when until only 2 nights ago I heard–finally–one other student on Fox news–offer an intelligent and well thought out answer with more solutions that just “Gun Control/STOP the NRA” as he had been peacefully countering his own OTHER ideas vs. the massive group think
    we were all given on ALL tv channels.

    We’ll see… but I remain thoughtfully suspicious about the entire student-led organization’s response …. and that it was not anyway nearly like your father’s passion to EDUCATE and not INDOCTRINATE within the schools or even by bringing them into the Halls of Congress.

    I wish your Dad had been one of my teachers.

  4. I would like to share with you ArtsWestchester CEO Janet Langsam’s most recent blog post – a reflection about President’s Day that is relevant all year around. If you find it as compelling as I do, we would love for you to share it with your audience.

    All the Best,

    Mary Alice

    Mary Alice Franklin
    Communications Manager & ArtsNews Editor
    Social Media Manager
    ArtsWestchester
    White Plains, NY

    Reflections on President’s Day

    http://www.thisandthatbyjl.com/reflections-on-presidents-day/​

    by Janet Langsam

    “First in war. First in peace. First in the hearts of his countrymen.” That’s George who, as our first president, set the tone and the bar for the Office of the Presidency. On and about President’s Day, it’s worth reflecting on George Washington’s historic legacy, eulogized above by his friend Henry A. Lee. Washington’s character and demeanor were such that following his two terms as President, he opted to walk behind his successor at the inauguration of President John Adams, signaling to all that the Office of the President of the United States belonged to the American people and its peaceful transfer of power was demonstrated. George Washington’s leadership style was evident in his many quotable moments. This is one of my favorites: “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”

    The jury may still be out as to whether George Washington ever chopped down his father’s cherry tree, confessing, “I cannot tell a lie.” This statement…true or false…forever marks the George Washington narrative…not because of its veracity, but because mothers all over the country, including my own, used this story to teach their children the proper standards of integrity.

  5. Peter,

    I attended Convention II in 1987. Giving a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives — in support of a constitutional amendment to ban the death penalty — was a genuine thrill and certainly the highlight of my high school “career.” I think the civics lessons I learned in Washington stuck — I wound up joining the navy and am now a commander. You must be proud of your father’s legacy. I’m certain there are thousands of adults who are taking the lessons your father taught us all over our country and all over the world.

    1. George,

      Thank you for your kind comments about my father and his impact on you. I only wish we had a list of those people who participated in the programs so we could learn their life stories. I am glad my blog somehow found its way to you and I will be pleased to share it with my sisters.

      Peter

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