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Old 07-25-2003, 01:51 PM
sfc_darrel sfc_darrel is offline
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Default Summer Civics-The American Legion

Summer Civics
The American Legion instructs youngsters in patriotism.

Friday, July 25, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT

NORTHFIELD, Vt.--It's not a scene you're likely to see in a Hollywood movie about high-school students.

A color guard of four boys marches the flag forward. Everyone salutes as a marching band plays the national anthem. The music stops. A handful of tardy parents and siblings take their places in rows of metal folding chairs. Stretched before them sits a mass of suited-and-tied 17-year-olds on a warm Wednesday night. Welcome to Green Mountain Boys' State.

Every summer, without much fanfare but with plenty of lasting effect, state chapters of the American Legion gather groups of young men about to start their senior year of high school for a week on a college campus. (The Legion's ladies auxiliary runs the parallel Girls' State.) The basic premise is the same everywhere--to teach how government works.
In Vermont, participants are divided into "counties" and "towns." With minimal guidance from counselors, the boys must elect town "selectmen" and a school board and tackle problems as mundane as how to balance police protection against road plowing in the annual budget. Boys vie to be elected to grander offices, too, such as representative or senator in the "legislature." The most competitive race by far is the one for governor. In a small state like Vermont, the results are often found in the local papers.

When I participated in Vermont Boys' State not all that long ago, my friends and I assumed it was just about government. Oh, and getting to hang out with old and new friends, away from the watchful eyes of our parents. And, I have to admit, adding to our pre-college r?sum?s. We were a little bored by some of the guest speakers. And always short on sleep.

Of course, there was more to it than that, and the civics lesson did sink in. My friends and I grew so frustrated with the two major parties that we formed our own splinter group, cleverly called the Moderate Party. I ran on its ticket for governor. And lost, miserably. But I did get elected to the state Senate.

On the fourth day of the program, we trundled into overheated yellow school buses for the short ride up to Montpelier, the state capital. The Boys' State House and Senate were to convene in the chambers used by their real-life models.

I went into the Senate chamber prepared, a school-choice bill in hand. But I never had a chance to introduce it. We got bogged down on some obscure issue immensely important to the Senate's leadership and of no concern to anyone else. Just as in real life. I heard later that the House had been stuck, for much the same reason, on whether to allow wolf trapping.

What I realized only this year, as I watched my younger brother during his Boys' State experience, is that patriotism is at the heart of this adventure--a certain kind of patriotism.
Everyone is patriotic these days, or so it seems. In the wake of 9/11, Americans felt an instinctive urge to rally around the flag. And this sentiment has been sustained for almost two years, through two foreign wars.

But will it last? It is, after all, a "reflexive" patriotism, a response to the outrage committed against us. What will happen when memories of that morning in the fall of 2001 begin to acquire, for some at least, the cloudy edges of a movie flashback?

The American Legion has known since the 1930s--when Boys' State was organized in Illinois as a counterweight to Hitler's youth camps in Germany--that true patriotism must run deeper than mere reaction. Wittingly or not, the Legion has been guided by a principle voiced by Edmund Burke more than 200 years ago: "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely." Boys' and Girls' State are designed to teach young people what about the American system is virtuous, or "lovely," to use Burke's word: i.e., worth loving.

This beauty may not be immediately apparent. After all, ordinary people are at the heart of the American system, and that can be a scary thought: The system is "vulnerable" to personalities with a passion for wolf-trapping bills, and a dull slogging-away is part of the "drama" of democracy. Yet at the same time the human-ness of America's government--its unpretentious, practical quality--is arguably its saving grace.

This week, two representatives from almost every state converged on Washington for Boys' Nation, chosen from this year's Boys' State participants. They've gone on field trips, met politicians and debated some of the same issues that vex their elders these days. Bills were introduced covering everything from affirmative action and stem-cell research to health insurance and education reform.

By definition, such bills will have no effect, of course. But part of the lesson--a patriotic lesson--is that it often goes that way in real life, too.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page intern at The Wall Street Journal.
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