On Thursday, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor rattled off astonishing statistics reflecting the ignorance of Americans on civic issues.
O’Connor passionately explained that many Americans can’t name the three branches of government. Half can’t name the vice president of the United States. Most can’t identify a sitting Supreme Court justice.
“Our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance about civics,” O’Connor said. “And it’s getting worse. We aren’t doing a very good job of civics education today.”
O’Connor spoke at a luncheon at the “Transforming America: Women in Leadership in the 21st Century” conference in Boise. More than 1,000 women and a few men attended the event hosted by the Andrus Center for Public Policy held at Boise State University. O’Connor was the featured speaker among several national-leading women entrepreneurs, writers and role models.
At age 83, O’Connor makes regular public appearances around the country and preaches about the importance of teaching civics to American children. She founded iCivics.org, a Web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in U.S. democracy. The website has educational video games, curriculum and online forums.
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“This is the most important work I’ve ever done,” said O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, serving 27 years on the court.
Today, public education considers civics an afterthought, O’Connor said, and it doesn’t convey that civics is about who we are as people and how we can have impact on the issues we care about.
“It’s not a spectator’s sport,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do not have a government by majority. We have a government by those who participate.”
Education, O’Connor said, is the most important thing to a thriving America.
“For our democracy to survive and endure, we have to ensure that our citizens are well-informed,” O’Connor said.
She appealed to the audience to talk to local curriculum directors, superintendents and teachers about beefing up civics lessons.
“I will help you every step of the way,” she said. “So help me … will you?”
The focus of O’Connor’s 40-minute speech was on inspiring civics in America’s youth, but she also spoke about her career and personal life. She shared special anecdotes, including a meeting she had with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“She was one of the homeliest people I’d ever seen, but she was very memorable,” O’Connor said. “She said the true purpose of education was to teach good citizenship and she was right. Teaching civics is the only long-term solution for maintaining a democracy.
“I never told my parents I met her because they thought Franklin was a danger to America and the only thing worse was Eleanor.”
When O’Connor graduated from Stanford law school, she couldn’t get a job because she was a woman. She worked for free to earn experience.
“I had to find work. My husband and I both liked to eat,” she said.
O’Connor went on to a successful law and political career with Arizona State Senate. She hinted that she may have earned a judicial appointment in Arizona to keep her from running for governor.
When President Reagan called, she said, the phone conversation was short. He asked if he could announce her appointment. Her response was simply, “Yes, Mr. President.”
During a lively question-and-answer session with David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy, O’Connor was asked her if she would have done things differently.
“I don’t look back and I don’t intend to so don’t take me there,” she quipped.