Guest Voz: First Latino President-Elect of American Bar Association Speaks Out About Civic Education
by Steven N. Zack
President-Elect, American Bar Association
To me, the answer to “why civic education matters” is a deeply personal one. It’s about my life story and that of my family’s. It’s our particular story, but it’s also an experience we share with many other American immigrants. I was born in 1947 and raised in Havana, Cuba. My mother is Cuban.
In the early 1900s my grandfather had come to Cuba from Russia, looking for a better life, searching for freedom, hoping for the right to practice his religion and beliefs without persecution. For many years, he found that. He raised a family, worked hard and prospered. Unfortunately, there came a time when that changed for my family in Cuba.
When I was 13, we left Cuba to come to the United States. My grandfather became a refugee for the second time, once again having to flee his home in search of that better life. At that young age, I learned a lesson I have never forgotten.
The Cuban and United States Constitutions may have been virtually identical on paper. However, without a thorough understanding and a complete commitment to the spirit those written words represented, neither that Cuban constitution, nor any other, was enough to protect its citizens and guarantee their rights and liberties. That was my family’s experience nearly a half century ago, a mere 90 miles from American soil.
It’s just as true today.
As the great American jurist Learned Hand so aptly put it, “”Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”
That’s why we, as Americans, must have a better understanding and appreciation of our Constitution. We must rededicate ourselves to learning about our constitutional system–not just the words on parchment, but the fundamental principles and values those words represent.
Principles and values such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial review, the rule of law, and constitutional democracy–majority rule that protects minority rights.
Such a rededication requires a shared commitment to civic education. This will take a concerted effort. We must begin where the need is most urgent and the impact can be the greatest–in our nation’s schools.
Unfortunately, leading experts point to the inadequate state of civic education. In a landmark report, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has warned, “School-based civic education is in decline.”
Although nearly 40 state constitutions cite the civic mission of schools as the rationale for establishing their public school systems, many high schools now teach only a single semester course on American government.
Less than one-third of 12th graders were proficient or higher on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test on civics (known as the “nation’s report card”), able to at least demonstrate “competency over challenging subject matter.”
Fortunately, we’re not alone in the effort to promote civic learning. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for one, has taken on the mission to advance the cause of civic education in recent years.
She cautions, however, “I don’t know how long we can survive as a nation if we don’t teach every generation how our government is structured and works. I regard that as a very important thing for our public schools to teach. It’s critical for every generation to learn it. You don’t inherit that knowledge through the gene pool.”
Yet another distinguished American who has served on our nation’s highest court, Justice David Souter, is also dedicated to civic education. In August he spoke about this subject to members of the American Bar Association at our annual meeting in Chicago.
His blunt message, “Civic education in the United States is not good enough.” Why civic education matters? “I believe civic educational reform is, literally, essential to the continued vitality of American constitutional government as we know it.” Justice Souter’s message came with a call to action, for both the organized bar and individual lawyers.
As president-elect of the American Bar Association, I’m pledging my support, and that of our professional association’s, to answer that call to action. Moreover, I encourage all lawyers and judges to be personally and actively engaged in civic education in their communities and schools.
Indeed, to preserve our cherished constitutional values, to never take them for granted, all Americans need to support the civic mission of our schools. That’s why civic education matters.
Please join me in that enterprise.