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With strong participation numbers and an impressive alumni list, Arkansas Boys State is arguably one of the most successful chapters of the American Legion–sponsored Boys State program. The national program began in 1935, with Hayes Kennedy and Harold Card of the Illinois American Legion—which was the first sponsoring organization—credited with the original idea.
The Arkansas program was established in 1940. Its alumni body boasts some impressive names, including President Bill Clinton, whose efforts at the 1963 session earned him the selection as the Arkansas representative to Boys Nation—a national gathering of Boys State representatives from across the country—where he met President John F. Kennedy, a meeting captured in a now iconic photograph. Other Arkansas participants who have gone on to distinguished careers in government include Governor Mike Huckabee and former White House chiefs of staff Mack McLarty (of the Bill Clinton administration) and Jack Watson (of the Jimmy Carter administration).
While there may be minor variations among the states, the program—which is open to high school students who have completed their junior year—takes place in the summer before senior year and is a week-long immersion in civic education. Through direct participation, Boys State offers a practical, hands-on look at politics and government as students seek election at the state, county, and city levels and then engage in the governing process. Participants learn about the responsibilities of a wide range of offices, as well as the interaction between the various offices and the various levels of government.
Each delegate is sponsored by a local post of the American Legion or some other civic, fraternal, religious, or patriotic organization. In selecting the nominees, the organizations look for boys who have demonstrated “outstanding qualities of leadership, character, scholarship, loyalty and service to their schools and community.” There is no partisan orientation; instead, the program is intended to enhance the boys’ understanding of how the political and governmental processes works. To that end, throughout the program’s existence, many of Arkansas’s leading political figures, including governors and the state’s U.S. senators, have addressed the gathering, urging participants to continue their interest in and commitment to the political process.
The annual event, long held at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), has most recently taken place at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway (Faulkner County), with the final legislative sessions taking place in the Arkansas House and Senate chambers in the Arkansas State Capitol.
Once boys are settled in at Boys State, they begin an intense week of creating and operating a mock government, while also visiting governmental and historic sites of interest in the area. Participants learn about the functions of the various elected and appointed governmental offices at the city, county, and state levels, while also learning about the judicial branch of the government. The boys organize campaigns and run for various offices. After the campaign process is completed, the newly elected office holders craft legislation and then work to get it enacted. The process, although abbreviated, offers a realistic view of the political and governmental system, which leaves all participants better versed in the realities of politics and government when they return home.
For additional information:Arkansas Boys State. http://www.arkansasboysstate.com (accessed February 13, 2014).
William H. Pruden IIIRavenscroft School
Last Updated 2/25/2014
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