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“Bro, this constitutional interpretation stuff is hot”

Monday, March 5th, 2012

In the Huffington Post, Michael Serota takes a look at the importance of the study of law as part of the civic education of high school students and laments its decline. Remembering an experience he had while working with “Street Law,” a nationwide program that teaches high school students about the law, Serota recounts:

“Bro, this constitutional interpretation stuff is hot; it’s way cooler than that boring stuff they teach us in our social studies class.” This was one of the more memorable pieces of feedback I received from a high school student during my time as an instructor with Georgetown University Law Center’s Street Law Clinic. Now, there’s a lot that can be said about the student’s statement — such as the interesting choice of adjectives — but what’s most notable is the fact that the student who was making it was a juvenile offender mandated to attend the course as part of his court-ordered rehabilitation. On the first day of class, he didn’t even know what the Constitution was; by the end of the semester, he was vigorously arguing with his classmates about contemporary constitutional topics such as the legality of the American-led operations in Libya and the relevance of the founding generation’s view of the Constitution to its present-day interpretation. “Hot,” indeed.

Unfortunately, whereas once the study of law was considered integral to every student’s education (as constitutional framer James Wilson put it, “the science of law” should be “the study of every free citizen”), this is no longer the case. Serota continues:

Sadly, however, this vision of a citizenry learned in the law has receded from American life, and as a result, from American education. This is truly a loss for our nation’s students. Beyond my anecdotal evidence about Street Law, teaching law in our primary and secondary schools just makes sense. Philosophically speaking, the success of our constitutional democracy hinges upon the knowledge of its citizens, which means that it is particularly problematic that we live in a society where nearly twice as many Americans can name at least two characters from The Simpsons (52%) than can name two or more rights protected by the First Amendment (28%). If, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, the public is “not enlightened enough” to exercise the “ultimate powers of society,” then the only remedy is to “inform their discretion by education.”

As a practical matter, incorporating legal instruction into our nation’s schools would help cultivate a greater level of thoughtfulness in American society with the potential for wide-ranging benefits. That’s because the basic skill that legal education seeks to instill, legal reasoning, isn’t actually legal at all. Rather, it is simply the ability to think critically about problems of public importance. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that law school graduates often go on to have successful careers in a wide array of non-legal fields, such as business consulting and finance. A little Socratic method can go a long way.

Read the full article here.