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O’Connor, Souter criticize lack of civics education

Last modified: 9/19/2014 12:48:07 AM
Retired U.S. Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter didn’t always agree when they served on the bench together. But last night, appearing together at the Capitol Center for the Arts, they shared their mutual appreciation and unified concern for the state of civics education in American schools.

“Our current national political climate makes promoting engagement, a shared understanding of our history, and a commitment to our future more challenging than perhaps it’s been in the past. But I think teaching tomorrow’s leaders to be active and informed is what we have to do as responsible citizens,” O’Connor said.

“Some real and perceived problems with our government structure and its effectiveness have poisoned the views of some citizens about the role of the federal government and its capacity to solve problems,” she said. “The way forward really starts in our schools. To restore faith in the democratic process and the workings of our country, it’s critical that our nation’s schools be given our full attention and support.”

She criticized the federal education reform law, No Child Left Behind, for providing incentive funding for schools based on students’ performance on math and literacy tests, but not prioritizing civics education.

She also spoke about a nonprofit organization she founded, called iCivics, that offers free interactive games and activities for students, and civics curriculum materials for teachers online.

Souter, who was raised in Weare and has lived in Hopkinton since his retirement from the court in 2009, credited O’Connor with helping him see the need for more civics education in America, literally and figuratively.

He showed the crowd a pair of eyeglasses he wears every day that O’Connor gave him 20 years ago after noticing him holding his notes very close to his face during hearings.

But she also inspired him to found the Constitutionally Speaking lecture series of which last night’s event was a part, he said.

About 12 years ago, O’Connor invited Souter to a conference to discuss a defense of an independent judiciary, where he learned that only one-third of American adults understand the three-pronged structure of the federal government.

“If people don’t know the structure of government, then to talk about judicial independence is to talk into a vacuum,” he said. “Nobody ever loved anything he didn’t know about. No one can responsibly criticize something if he has no idea of the structure.”

O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and she served from 1981 to 2006.

Now 84, she was seated when the curtain rose and appeared to struggle to stand, with Souter’s help, at the end of their time on stage. Neither of them took questions from the audience or spoke with the press last night. They did stay to take photographs with local school groups.

Souter closed the event by telling the audience about a case on which he and O’Connor disagreed sharply. The day the opinions were published, she sent him a note praising his work.

“For the sake of the vitality of American democracy, try to be – try to produce more people like her,” he said. “We have had the glimpse of a great lady here tonight.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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