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.