<< The Body Politic

A conversation with Sandra Day O’Connor

Monday, October 1st, 2012

In Sunday’s issue of Parade Magazine, David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has a “candid conversation” with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Since leaving the Court, O’Connor has focused much of her attention on promoting civic education through her organization iCivics, about which she speaks with Gergen:

Since you stepped down from the court, you’ve been working to teach young people about how our government functions. Tell us about your effort to improve civics education.
I think it’s the most important thing I’ve done. We have a complex system of government. You have to teach it to every generation. We want [young people] to continue to be part of it. We need ’em more than ever.

An Annenberg poll found that more people could name an American Idol judge than the chief justice of the United States.
That’s right. We have to do something about it. I want to [start with] middle schoolers. They enjoy learning at that age.

Your website, iCivics.org, is designed to make civics fun. How does it work?
What we know is that kids like to play games on the computer. So I set up an advisory group of fabulous teachers to tell me what we needed to focus on in a civics course. And then we [had] games designed that focus on [those parameters]. Young people spend an average of 40 hours a week in front of a screen. One or two hours a week would do to teach them civics.

The site also offers curriculum materials, right?
Yes, [materials] that teachers can use. Baylor ­University did a study: They put iCivics to use in a lot of schools in Texas for about three months. They didn’t just say it was good; they gave it rave reviews, said it was incredible, that it’s engaging, that the kids really learn.

The program is now used in 50 states and an ­estimated 55,000 classrooms.
I want to be in a lot more than that. I mean, that’s just to start.

What happens if we fail to teach our children civics?
You have citizens who don’t understand how ­government works and they’re kind of soured on it. All they do is criticize. They have no idea that they can make things happen. As a citizen, you need to know how to be a part of it, how to express yourself—and not just by voting.

Read the rest of the interview here.