Over many decades, civic lethargy has plagued the United States. The most recent study of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that students perform worse in civics and U.S. history than in any other subjects. To counteract this trend, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor has become a staunch advocate of civic education. In 2009, she launched iCivics, a Web-based education project, to provide free interactive lesson plans and games for learning civics. The project is used in all 50 states and an estimated 55,000 classrooms. O’Connor recently spoke with WP Magazine about the state of civic education in America.
Q: Why civics, and why now?
A: In over half the states in the union, civics education is not required. The only reason we have public school education in America is because in the early days of the country, our leaders thought we had to teach our young generation about citizenship ... that obligation never ends. If we don’t take every generation of young people and make sure they understand that they are an essential part of government, we won’t survive. We don’t teach our own kids. It’s insane.
How is iCivics promoting its agenda nationwide?
We have to start with each state and head of education in each state. We could have a trickle-down effect. I’m not sure in my own state we have the same sense of dedication and urgency [as in other states]. It takes some leadership. We’re trying to do it via iCivics and chairpeople to promote civics education in every state.
For Congress and state lawmakers pledging more budget cuts and austerity measures, can civics be a cost-free — or nearly cost-free — proposition?
None of it has to cost more than a dime or more than states are already spending. We have to make sure that the teachers [social studies, history, etc.] are going be integrated into civic education. It’s not that we need additional money; we need a focus, a requirement, a concern. You don’t need legislation; you need a commitment. That should be the objective of every high school and middle school in America.
I know your judicial approach to federalism was conscious of the appropriate divide of jurisdiction, but many civics activists believe that, without a systematic approach, isolated solutions will not cure the problem. Do you agree?
[No.] We are taking a state-based approach. That’s why we have tried to get chairmen and women in every state’s government who are dedicated and enthused about civics.
Do you intend for iCivics programs/games to be permanently free for the use of public and private schools and their students?
ICivics’ games and lesson plans will remain free.
As a public servant who has served in local, statewide and federal office, you are, no doubt, a perfectly suited civics advocate.
I can’t look back and say how exactly it happened. It happened to be the sum total, somehow or another, of my work. As a citizen and participant, I really got active when I came back to Arizona and became a precinct committeewoman gathering signatures for candidates.
[My introduction to civics] might be very different from other people. [I had a teacher,] Mrs. Feuille, in grade school — being in her class was a pleasure, stimulated me to learn about government, and I became active participating in various ways during high school. It’s great if students take an active role in school. I have a granddaughter in high school. I’ve been pleased she has taken a role in student leadership. My grandson, too. That really pleases me.
Two things are critical for young people: (1) to learn how to read fast, (2) how to write well. Those are the two keys to success in life in any leadership role. Both should be integrated into civics … and in many professions: business, government, life in general. I have yet to find a public school system that teaches reading well enough. The amount of reading I had to do as a judge was astounding — I don’t think our schools pay any attention to that. Life has always included reading, on the side, on the Lazy B ranch. If you can write well, you can convey thoughts to others and cause action to be taken.
Is civics important to ensure that our country doesn’t suffer from a robotic bureaucracy?
Yes. You need to feel like you’re part of government, and that you can make things happen. Get a legislature to take on a cause. These things matter for young people. You can go through life and not find a lot of inspiring people [in government] — maybe they’re in short supply. We need to find the kinds of leaders who make a difference. It’s a small percentage. Everybody can have an effective hand and voice in making our world a special place.
What are a few Supreme Court decisions that especially engaged your own civic commitment?
Issues concerning people accused of doing things adverse to our country: what kind of legal rights they are entitled to have and how we go about the judicial process for them. 9/11 and finding its perpetrators — that will test your civic sensibility.
Alexander Heffner is a freelance journalist in New York. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.