Retired Supreme Court justice warns of “dangerous state of civics knowledge”

If the various surveys from the last several years pointing out the deplorable state of American civics education and understanding weren’t convincing enough, recently retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter — noting that two-thirds of Americans can’t name all three branches of the American government — told those attending the American Bar Association’s annual meeting this month that such ignorance is “dangerous” and “something to worry about.”

It is certainly something that we at the SPLC — where, working with students and school officials, we see the effects of such ignorance and lack of appreciation on a regular basis — have been talking about for years. In addition to the numbers mentioned by Justice Souter, a 2007 survey of American high school students by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that almost 75 percent of those surveyed “don’t care much” about the First Amendment. Those numbers, while troubling, weren’t especially surprising given that a survey of all Americans by the McCormick Foundation the year before found that while nearly half of those surveyed could name at least two family members from the The Simpsons TV show, only about a quarter could name more than one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

Justice Souter, however, wasn’t the first Supreme Court justice to warn of the dangers of failing to provide a proper civics education. More than two decades before, the late Justice William Brennan, in his dissenting opinion in the Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, which upheld the censorship of a high school newspaper that contained articles on teenage pregnancy, a topic that school officials found inappropriate, warned:

“Instead of ‘teach[ing] children to respect the diversity of ideas that is fundamental to the American system,’ … and ‘that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass,’ … the Court today ‘teach[es] youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.'”

He concluded:

“The young men and women of Hazelwood East [High School] expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today.”

As Justice Souter acknowledged, after more than 20 years of such “lessons,” the chickens have come home to roost.