These surveys about how ignorant Americans are have become hardy perennials. Survey data confirm that large numbers of Americans lack even rudimentary knowledge of what used to be called "eighth-grade civics." A survey by Common Core found that 25 percent of American high school students thought Christopher Columbus sailed after the year 1750, and about a third of them did not know the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
We can all have a good laugh at the expense of the ignorant kids, but, of course, if they are truly undereducated (and these surveys can exaggerate), it's largely the fault of our schools.
It's nice to be reminded, from time to time, about what good schools and good teachers can achieve.
In McLean, Va., a suburb of the District of Columbia, Langley High School has for the past 22 years conducted a program called "Case Day." The brainchild of teacher Steven Catlett and former clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court General William Suter, Case Day involves the entire school (but most intensively the seniors in government class) in studying a pending Supreme Court case. Government teachers Allison Cohen and Micah Herzig, both former lawyers, try to choose cases that will engage teenagers. In past years, students have argued District of Columbia v. Heller (the gun control challenge), Morse v. Frederick (the "bong hits for Jesus" case), and Grutter v. Bollinger (an affirmative action question).
Four students were assigned to argue the cases before a panel of nine "justices," which included two students and also law professors, practicing lawyers and members of the school board. Suter played the role of chief justice.
This year's oral argument was Riley v. California, a Fourth Amendment case contesting the police search of a cellphone. The students familiarized themselves with a dozen or so Supreme Court precedents. As one explained, "We were told that in six weeks we were going to get a crash course in college, law school, and 20 years of practice." All agreed that studying the precedents changed their initial impression of the proper outcome of the case. They were also unanimous in saying that they now hope to be lawyers -- with their teacher acknowledging a little sheepishly that she may have conveyed the misimpression that law school is fun.
Before the drama of the mock oral argument, guest speakers elucidated the issues by offering some context on common law privacy, search-and-seizure cases and the facts of Riley v. California. Then, as the robed justices entered the chamber (well, school library), all rose. A student clerk intoned the "oyez," saying, "All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting ... "
Sparks flew! The arguments featured exactly the sort of thrust and parry that characterizes the actual Supreme Court. Student advocates were challenged by justices attempting to probe the weaknesses of their arguments (while much of the school watched on monitors). Grace Sununu and Anna Cox, representing Riley, were asked why the digital contents of a phone deserve any different consideration from ordinary papers that the court has held may be searched incident to arrest. Was it the sheer amount of data? What if someone were carrying a paper diary with tiny printing? Of William Miner and Ben Parker, appearing for California, it was demanded, "Suppose someone is arrested for jaywalking? Does that mean their entire private life (which can be accessed on a cellphone) is open to search?"
Though they could scarcely complete a full sentence without being interrupted, the students dropped case names and legal doctrines with impressive poise and confidence. The student justices (Natalie Fahlberg and Myunghoon Kim) drilled their colleagues mercilessly.
The Langley court ruled 5-4 in favor of Riley. That other court a few miles east will hear oral argument in the case on April 29, when the six students who participated will sit in the audience as the guests of Justice Antonin Scalia, a loyal supporter of Case Day.
This is not a high-tech, expensive program. Any school with good teachers and access to a library could do it -- and should. It's amazing what students are capable of, when asked.