The 2020 Harvard Civics Cup competition, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Harvard and the Bromfield School, was the place to be on a beautiful Sunday, March 1. The sun streamed into upper Town Hall, the large room abuzz with 40 or so students in grades 8 to 12 in bright blue competition T-shirts while a handful of blue T-shirted adult volunteers greeted, gave directions, and did all those behind-the-scenes things volunteers do. On the table at the door sat the large silvery winners’ cup, glinting in the sunlight.
Music was playing. A big table of food was off to the side for anyone requiring a pick-me-up. Scorekeeper Sharon McCarthy was at her station. Chairs were set up facing the stage. A podium with microphone and a large screen were in place facing the audience. Ten tables with chairs for each team and their adult liaison were placed in a horseshoe shape around the audience.
The “Pawnee Goddesses” (from left, Rachel Shrives, Liza Toll, and Grace Acton) are the winners of the League of Women Voters Civics Cup competition. (Photo by Richard Jenson)
Placards on the tables showed the names of the 10 teams: 2.25/4 Asian, The Always Wright Petrol Patrol, Bowlcut Gang, Civics Super Squad, Free Laddies, Kool Kats, Lil’ Jungle Jim, The Pawnee Goddesses, team snail, and Wasted Potential. Team members projected varying degrees of confidence with shoulder shrugs, nervous or excited laughter, looks of resignation, exuberance, nonchalance, and competitive jitters. There was table-hopping and chattering among the students before the competition, but throughout the competition they were focused and attentive. All fell silent when LWV President Meg Bagdonas took the microphone.
In her introductory remarks, Bagdonas spoke about the importance of voting and reminded us that the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified 100 years ago, which happened to answer the first question posed to the competitors. Town Moderator Bill Barton explained the rules of the competition. Assured that everyone was ready, he started asking the questions, which were projected on the screen one at a time. There was a 30-second time allowance to submit an answer.
The teams had a whiteboard on which, after each question, they held up their answers. Some members of the audience tested their civics knowledge as well by playing along, writing their answers (or guesses) on a piece of paper. Barton quickly read the team responses before revealing the answer on the screen. Barton’s timing was perfect, allowing just enough time to digest the feedback before moving on to the next question. Points were awarded for correct answers. There would be four rounds of questions on four topics.
Within the first round of 10 questions on suffrage history, covering events from 1848 to 1965, was a question asking what event prompted the change in the voting age from 21 to 18. Chatting between rounds, Select Board member Lucy Wallace speculated that the answer, the Vietnam War, must appear as distant to today’s students as WWII did to the generation of 1971 when the change was enacted.
Because of this year’s focus on voting, the answers to the second round of 10 questions on current voting practices seemed more accessible. Even though the term “faithless elector” (an Electoral College member who does not vote for the president or vice-president for whom they are pledged to vote) may seem esoteric, its meaning could be deduced from following the news. Most of the competitors were in the ballpark with an answer to the question asking how many electoral votes are needed to win the presidential election (270).
The third set of questions on state and local government was easier, although listing all 14 states voting on Super Tuesday could have been a little problematic. Luckily, contestants were asked to list only three besides Massachusetts. Another question asking for the name of Harvard’s town clerk drew a variety of answers. A few teams did get the correct answer of Marlene Kenney.
The fourth and final round asked five questions about the impeachment. One of the correct answers required precision in the term “obstruction of Congress,” not just “obstruction.” A question that asked which presidents, besides Trump, have been impeached received several answers. Although most included Bill Clinton, several did not include Andrew Johnson.
Bromfield’s psychology and current events teacher Kathleen Doherty and eighth-grade history and civics teacher Andy Wright were on hand to evaluate the validity of some answers.
When asked how she prepared for the competition, a member of the Pawnee Goddesses replied that she focused on local politics by reading the Harvard Press and Nextdoor Harvard. She felt hindered in her study by the fact that the Press is a weekly paper, not daily, and she said Nextdoor Harvard is too opinionated. Another student reported preparing for the competition by watching the news on TV or other media.
After the first round, Jen Benson, Harvard’s former state representative, spoke about her desire to make a difference in civic life and her appreciation for where she lives and the many people she has met. She emphasized that there are many ways to serve.
The Honorable Joan McMenemy, the first justice for the Berkshire Juvenile Court, spoke after the second round of her love for her job and encouraged students to consider a career in criminal justice.
After a well-deserved pizza break, three members of the Harvard Select Board spoke about what motivated them to serve. Kara Minar was involved in student government from her school days; Stu Sklar wanted to make a difference; and Wallace quoted her mentor, Bill Ashe, who said, “If you want to make a difference, get involved in local politics.”
Wasted Potential, a team of 11th-graders, was the third-place winner. Civics Super Squad, a ninth-grade team, came in second. The Pawnee Goddesses, a 12th-grade team that included two members who had competed last year, walked away with the big silver cup.