Civics Lesson 

Retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor speaks in Memphis, presides over new website.

click to enlarge Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She's also pretty funny.

O'Connor was in Memphis last week as one of the keynote speakers of the National Association of Women Judges' annual conference, held this year at the Peabody hotel.

In a ballroom packed with elected and appointed female judges from around the world, O'Connor peppered her talk with amusing asides.

But on the same day that fewer than 25 percent of registered voters turned out to elect A C Wharton mayor of Memphis, the retired Supreme Court justice also spoke seriously about something that is clearly close to her heart: civics education.

"Most concerning to me is that a third of Americans can't name the three branches of government, much less explain what they do," she said.

Public high schools used to include civics classes. But in more recent years, civics education has been left by the wayside in favor of classes geared toward high-stakes testing.

"Rather than revamping the curriculum, civics education has been all but removed in schools," O'Connor said. "That minimum attention is unacceptable. American schools should be doing a better job."

In an effort to combat that phenomenon, O'Connor teamed up with a group of experts in history, civics, and web design. The result is O'Connor's vision, ourcourts.org, a website that includes free resources to help teachers teach civics to middle schoolers and Constitution-based video games for students.

"We have to demonstrate to young people what civics is really all about, and what it's really about is empowerment," O'Connor said. "Civics needs to be on par with other academic subjects."

The retired Supreme Court justice said civics education was important, because a healthy democracy demands sustained citizen participation.

"We're fortunate to have a stable democratic government," O'Connor said, "but we can't take it for granted."

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