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Souter: Civics Education Must Be Improved


A poor understanding of civics by many Americans, such as the two-thirds who cannot name the three branches of government, "is something to worry about," retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter told the American Bar Association on Saturday.

“I’m here to speak this evening because civic education in the United States is not good enough, and we have to do something about it,” Souter said to the ABA's annual meeting in Chicago. “I want to speak about the risk to constitutional government when a substantial portion of the American populace simply fails to gain that understanding. In particular, I’ll ask you to consider the danger to judicial independence when people have no conception of how the judiciary fits within the constitutional scheme.”

[I was not in attendance, but the video of Souter's speech is available here. Lynne Marek of the National Law Journal has a good account of the speech, while the Chicago Tribune reports here and the Chicago Sun-Times here.]

Souter recalled his youth attending the annual town meeting in Weare, N.H., part of the New England tradition in which any of a town's citizens could turn out to speak and vote on policy matters.

"If anyone had put the question to one of my 9th-grade classmates or to me -- what are the three branches of government? -- none of us would have failed to answer," Souter said.

Souter, who retired in June after 19 years on the Supreme Court, has joined an effort to review New Hampshire's civics education curriculum. And he urged ABA members to support efforts, particularly in their own states, to improve civics education.

“I ask you to make this effort a powerful one, to take part in it, every one of you in every way that you can,” Souter said.


We may be somewhat unnecessarily nostalgic about the degree to which earlier generations received a better civics education than today's students. Never the less, the lack of understanding of how our government works needs to be addressed. At least retired Justice Souter does the right thing. Having attacked the existing situation, he puts himself into the mix of review and planning by volunteering his time to help.

No doubt it is a good idea. One critical subject of a good civics curriculum is the corrupting aspect of power, and how it must be a primary consideration.

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