CAN you more easily name the Three Stooges or the three branches of government? When retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor learned that more young people could list the triumvirate of Curly, Larry and Moe, she was concerned. On a mission to promote civics education, O'Connor spoke in Oklahoma City last week to a group of more than 200 students, educators, judges and lawyers.
Having served in the judicial, legislative and executive branches, O'Connor is passionate about helping young people understand how government works and making the point that they are key parts of it. The conversation at the Oklahoma Bar Center featured O'Connor and Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Taylor, with a live webcast of the program reaching more students.
Answering questions the students had submitted in advance, the presentation itself became a civics lesson. Taylor and O'Connor explained how cases get to the state and federal supreme courts, what a typical day is like for a justice and how the chief justice is selected.
O'Connor traced the rise and demise of civics education in America. Instilling knowledge and patriotism was a driving force of the public school movement beginning in the 1820s. For the next century and a half, schools felt an obligation to teach how government works. Now, she said, 20 states don't teach civics.
The solution, in her view, isn't to mandate curriculum changes, as is being considered by some states. Instead, O'Connor believes school districts can take the lead in incorporating civics as a permanent part of the educational system.
In 2009, O'Connor founded the iCivics program, an online resource for teachers and students. The interactive www.iCivics.org features free lesson plans and 16 educational computer games with topics ranging from lawmaking to budgeting to navigating the court system.
O'Connor also shared about her life experiences and the path culminating in her historic appointment. As the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, “she shattered the glass ceiling,” said Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, a moderator for the event alongside Cathy Christensen, Oklahoma Bar Association president.
“It opened countless doors for women,” O'Connor said. At the time, there wasn't even a women's restroom in the private area of the courtroom. Now, three of the nine justices are female.
That fateful Oval Office conversation with President Ronald Reagan began with talk about their common ground of ranch life. When O'Connor boarded a plane to return home, she breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Well that was interesting, but thank goodness I don't have to do that job.” To her surprise, she soon got a call from Reagan: “I want to announce your nomination tomorrow.” The job hadn't been on her radar and she wasn't sure she had what it took, but she ultimately accepted the honor. And the rest is history.
It's history that our students should be learning. With merely one-third of adults able to name all three branches of government, and one-third unable to recall any, we must do a better job of teaching the value of American history and institutions. Lest we be content with a citizenry of stooges.