Social Studies

Supreme Court Justice Initiates A National Civics Lesson

By Mark Walsh — February 06, 2002 4 min read
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy journeyed from the court’s marble halls last week to a classroom in a public high school here, where he led students in an unusual discussion about democratic values in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Get classroom materials and additional resources on the Dialogue on Freedom project, from the American Bar Assocation.

Justice Kennedy had let it be known that he was troubled by some of the reactions of young people both here and abroad to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In general, young people appeared to lack sufficient moral outrage, the justice had told reporters, and failed to display an understanding of American ideals such as democracy and freedom.

So working with the American Bar Association, he conceived a program called Dialogue on Freedom, which includes class lessons and a discussion scenario involving an imaginary country where most people abhor Americans.

“After the shooting stops, there is still a struggle for ideas,” Justice Kennedy told a group of 25 seniors in the Advanced Placement government and politics class at School Without Walls, a racially diverse magnet high school just a few blocks from the White House.

“Democracy is taught from one generation to another,” he said during the Jan. 28 session. “As judges, we cannot participate in major policy discussions. But I can assure you, judges can and will comment on what the Constitution means.”

Lessons for ‘W’

It is not unusual for Supreme Court justices to meet with high school students, but such sessions typically take place in a ceremonial conference room at the court. Last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg met with high school students from Virginia and New York state for a question-and-answer session. In December 2000, Justice Clarence Thomas met with high school students just after the court had decided the controversial presidential- election case.

It is very rare, however, for a sitting justice to take over a high school classroom and deliver a lesson tied closely to events that have dominated the news. And the 75-minute session at School Without Walls was all the more remarkable for the participation of first lady Laura Bush.

“Since Sept. 11, I think all Americans have remembered what our values are,” Mrs. Bush told the students. “It gave us a chance to reassess what our country stands for.”

After brief remarks, she joined the circle of students as Justice Kennedy began his lesson, which involves a planeload of Americans stranded for three days in the fictional country of Quest. The country is poor, its government is corrupt, and it tolerates a charismatic religious leader who preaches hatred of the United States.

Justice Kennedy asked what the students would teach a citizen of Quest, simply named “W,” about American heritage.

“I would want W to learn about the civil rights movement,” one student said. Using the Socratic method, Justice Kennedy moved rather quickly through such topics as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Civil War.

“What three books should we leave with W” to teach her about democracy, he asked.

The students suggested Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and even a Dr. Seuss book teaching racial tolerance.

Mrs. Bush suggested a Sunday edition of an American newspaper, which “would be a good thing to show someone from a totalitarian state"; a course catalogue from “any big state university,” which would demonstrate the extent of academic freedom here; and a book of famous American speeches. One she suggested was The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, a 1992 collection edited by the education historian Diane Ravitch.

Film Fest

When Justice Kennedy asked what movies students would show to teach about American ideals, evidence of a generation gap emerged between the teenagers and the 65-year-old jurist. If he was expecting to hear suggestions such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” what he got was “A Clockwork Orange,” which a student said shows what happens when “the government takes too much control of people’s lives,” along with “All the President’s Men” and “Malcolm X.”

One student offered “Independence Day,” the 1996 film about the world’s response to an alien attack.

“It has a sci-fi aspect to it,” the student explained to a skeptical Justice Kennedy. “But it shows how the people, the globe, can come together and fight something that doesn’t belong.”

“That is a beautiful answer,” the justice said. “I will now see the movie.”

Afterward, students said they saw clear parallels between Quest and Afghanistan under the Taliban. Daniel Keesler said he wished Justice Kennedy had spent more time on the Quest scenario, for which the class had prepared for several days.

“I couldn’t help but be frustrated” by the justice’s quick jumps from topic to topic, said the 17-year-old senior, whose T-shirt read: “Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.”

But Hans Buchner, also 17, said, “In the time we had, I thought it went very well.” His T-shirt read: “I Am the Future of America.”

Justice Kennedy was planning similar classroom visits in Honolulu; Sacramento, Calif.; and New York City over the next few weeks.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Justice Initiates A National Civics Lesson

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