Former Justice urges more civic education
Posted by Jeffrey Roy on August 7, 2009
David H. Souter, retired as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, challenged American Bar Association (ABA) members at the Opening Assembly for the 2009 Annual Meeting to “take on the job of making American civic education real again.” For video of Souter’s speech, click here.
When more than two-thirds of Americans cannot even name the three branches of government, they cannot speak up for an independent judiciary, Souter said. “This is something to worry about” and there is “a risk to constitutional government,” he warned. Souter said he learned the statistic in a conference convened in 2006 by retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer.
He contrasted the lack of public understanding of the workings of government today with his own civic development as a child growing up in Weare, N.H. He attended yearly town meetings with his parents, watching community leaders decide issues of local governance, differentiating between legislative and executive functions and between township responsibilities and those of the state. A respected citizen who had been elected by township residents lead the meeting with fairness and recognition of all viewpoints, in a judicial capacity, he said. When he reached the ninth grade, the formal civics class taught in school was easy to understand, and not one of his classmates would have failed to identify the branches of government, he added.
The reality that a “majority of the public is unaware of the structure of government,” and fails to understand the notion of separation of powers, is the “root problem we have to face about judicial independence,” Souter said.
Civic education must be raised to a new power,” he concluded. It is “the birthright of every American.”
Along these lines, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in cooperation with Georgetown University Law Center and has developed a Web site and interactive civics curriculum for 7th, 8th and 9th grade students called Our Courts. You can view that site by clicking here. At the ABA conference, Meryl J. Chertoff, Professor at Georgetown University Law School and Director of the Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary reported on new online learning tool. You can view that video by clicking here.
As part of my personal commitment to this effort, for the past two years, I have participated in the Constitution in the Classroom project at Franklin High School. Constitution in the Classroom is an effort by the American Constitution Society to bring its members into primary and secondary classrooms to raise awareness of fundamental constitutional principles. In 2009, the classroom discussion focused on the Redding student strip search case which was decided by the Supreme Court in June 2009. The conversations with students have been lively and bring into perspective the role of the courts in their lives.
As Thomas jefferson once observed: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.” Those words are critical underpinnings to the need for greater civics instruction in schools.