The Justice Teaches Civics

Posted: May 31, 2007 12:01 AM
The Justice Teaches Civics

Sandra Day O'Connor describes herself as a "product of the last century," but she's determined to be an up-to-date grandmother. She retired from the Supreme Court a little more than a year ago, and often watches her grandchildren playing on their computers. Inspired, she wants to harness this revolutionary instrument to teach kids the nuts and bolts of democracy.

She's creating an interactive website for teaching civics. Remember civics? Civics was where the "products of the last century" learned how their government was supposed to work, and were taught the responsibilities and obligations of an informed citizen. But fashions change, and "social studies" became a catchall class to teach history, sociology and government, and rarely well.

Earlier this year in a national test to measure their knowledge of how their world works, only half of the nation's 12th-graders understood what happens when federal and state laws conflict. Fewer than half could describe the meaning of federalism.

"I regard [civics] as a very important thing for our public schools to teach," Justice O'Connor told interviewers on Fox News Sunday. "It's critical for every generation to learn it. You don't inherit that knowledge through the gene pool." The Internet may be serendipity, because it engages young people in ways that books no longer do. She particularly wants to teach kids how the courts work. Only a Luddite would object.

Like Sandra Day O'Connor, I took civics, too. I still prefer to get knowledge from books, but the book's day seems to have passed. As long as we remain a plugged-in society, we'll have to tap into electronics to teach citizenship. That's the way the kids communicate. The schools will need all the help we can give them.

"In many, if not most, high schools today," says Justice O'Connor, "civics education is no longer required. And I don't know how long we can survive as a nation if we don't teach every generation how our government is structured and works."

The teaching of American history is just as dismal. In an extraordinary "Meet the Press" give-and-take between Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, and Chris Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, the two politicians went at each other in a spirited debate about whether Congress should pull the plug on the war in Iraq. Each man gave as good as he got, evoking historical analogies that few high school students could have understood. Impatience and skepticism of the newly elected government in Baghdad, Gingrich argued, overlook our own 14 years of confusion from the first Continental Congress in 1775 until the adoption of the Constitution in 1789. He suggested this summary of what a French skeptic might have said about helping the bumbling Americans of 1776: "Should we really send aid to these guys? They've retreated to Lancaster. They're not even in Philadelphia. They've lost New York. . . . This guy Washington has no major victories. Why are we sending money over there? That is just bad money after good."

Dodd, not missing a fact or date, pointed out that it wasn't quite right to equate the American Revolution with a civil war in Iraq. He wouldn't compare George Washington to Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

This was a real debate, lending historical perspective to current events, the sort of debate we rarely hear between presidential candidates. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were never limited to 90 seconds for a response to an argument, and anyone who reads contemporary accounts marvels not only at the eloquence of Lincoln and Douglas, but that their audiences, often made up of unlettered backwoodsmen, understood what they were talking about.

It's tempting to ask how FDR would have dealt with a Congress debating whether to withdraw the 101st Airborne from Bastogne after the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, or the Marines from Guadalcanal because the slogging was hard. Frederick Kagan poses the question another way in The Weekly Standard: "To imagine that America can lose in Iraq but prevail in the war against jihadism is almost like imagining that we could have yielded Europe to the Nazis but won World War II."

Fueling the debate over immigration reform is the question of what we should expect immigrants to learn about their new country. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services poses questions for new citizens before they take their oath of citizenship. Many are as basic as the red, white and blue of the flag, but some require a knowledge of civics many of our high school students (and no doubt some of their teachers) do not have. The future depends less on how we teach than on what we teach. Sadly, that's a revolutionary idea.