howardnlby Howard Stephenson
On September 11, legislators, judges and executive branch officials across the state teamed up with lawyers and went into Utah 340 junior high and high schools to participate with students in a “Dialogue on Freedom.” It was my privilege to participate in the dialogue with prominent Utah attorney James B. Lee. We were invited to Mrs. Jacobsen’s AP History class at Riverton High School to lead a discussion with more than thirty students about the freedoms we enjoy in the United States and how they contrast with the liberties available in other countries and in other periods of the world’s history.

The mind-stretching program was developed by the American Bar Association. John Adams, President of the Utah State Bar, has led the Utah State Bar’s efforts to implement the program in Utah schools. Members of the bar hope the dialogue will help students and family members think critically, participate in the U.S. political system, and see just how much they know about U.S. government and what an important role the individual plays in its success. While the authors of the dialogue realize such knowledge won’t change the tragic events of Sept. 11, they hoped these discussions would help participants understand and evaluate the nation’s response and to shape its political future. This is an especially timely issue as the United States contemplates the pros and cons of pre-emptive military strikes against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime.

Stranded in a Nation Without Freedoms

Students faced the hypothetical situation of being stranded on a very poor island nation called Quest, peopled with critics of democracy and governed by a dictator with little respect for individual rights. Quest had a written constitution, but its promises were not carried out. The country had elections which were not really competitive and were often corrupt. The leadership consisted of an old guard, which ruled with the half-hearted support of the military. Corruption was pervasive throughout government and the economy.

Drummer, a man in his early 30’s, lived in Quest. He was a charismatic speaker and preached hatred of the United States and the necessity to destroy American power and influence. There was a religious component to Drummer’s doctrine, and he proclaimed that the United States is evil. The government often arrested its opponents, but it was reluctant to detain Drummer or be too hard on him because of his popularity, particularly among the poor.

Encountering the inhabitants of this imaginary, struggling nation, students learned that when people are hungry, or without medicine or other essentials of life, they have little passion for the freedoms we take for granted and their attitudes towards prosperous, permissive nations such as the United States are not positive. Students struggled with foreign perceptions of the U.S. and the policies that create those perceptions. For example, they learned that the feelings of the oppressed people of Quest regarding the 9-11 attack on the United States were not sympathetic; since more than 3,000 people on Quest die every day, unnoticed by the people of the U.S.

Responding to the Critics of the United States

The students were asked to respond to the critics, answering questions about what it means to be an American and whether any of the criticisms are valid. Rather than merely engaging in political rhetoric, students across the nation were asked to seriously consider the language of America’s political documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and determine how well current political leaders adhere to those core ideas.

Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights

At Riverton High School students discussed “Rule of Law” and listed the rights Americans sometimes take for granted such as freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to keep and bear arms. They were asked to consider the limits that have been imposed on these rights, such as restrictions on where people can bring guns and restrictions on political speech imposed by laws that limit campaign contributions, or that limit lobbying activities. They were asked to consider claims of media bias and what happens when the press manipulates public opinion through inaccurate reporting.

Using their own experiences, students identified books or movies that express what America is all about.

Students evaluated a time line called “Great Events in Freedom,” and identified important dates in America’s progress toward ensuring the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness identified in the Declaration of Independence. They listed the revolutionary war, the Emancipation Proclamation, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and many others. Students got a sense of how rare are the liberties we enjoy as they looked at a time line showing the years of recorded human history, from Adam until today, realizing that the time from 1776 until 2002 is a relatively short period. They also contemplated the fact that American Independence did not immediately result in freedom for all Americans and that, on a global basis, it was not until the fall of the Soviet Union – barely more than a decade ago – that a majority of the world’s population lives in countries where the leaders are elected by the consent of the governed.

The aim of the experience was to give students insights into themselves, their country and what each values – lessons every U.S. citizen should learn.

We’re In Good Hands

I was truly amazed by the insights and knowledge of the students in Mrs. Jacobsen’s class at Riverton High School. I believe these students have a far better grasp of American government and history than most U.S. citizens. They expressed compassion for all people and a desire that all of the earth’s inhabitants enjoy the liberties we possess in the United States. I was impressed by their ability to articulate their beliefs, politely challenge the statements of others (including my own!), and describe what we as citizens must do to advance our nation toward the goal of “. . . liberty and justice for all,” contained in the pledge of allegiance.

If students across this country are anything like those I encountered at Riverton High School, I believe America’s future is in good hands.