Vol. 75, No. 3, March
Dialogue on Freedom
The legislature should mandate civics or american government course
for state students.
AT THE MIDWINTER MEETING OF THE NATIONAL Conference of Bar
Presidents in Philadelphia, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke
about an educational program he conceived after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attack on America. The "Dialogue on Freedom" program calls on lawyers to
engage in structured discussions in classrooms about the meaning of
American democracy. The effort, sponsored by the ABA, focuses on three
topics: 1) "American Identities and Constitutional Values" explores what
it means to be an American in a diverse and pluralistic country; 2)
"Individual Freedoms, Democratic Participation, and Other Cultures"
focuses on the individual's rights and responsibilities, and examines
whether the principles of individual liberty are compatible with the
values of other nations; and 3) "American Civil Values in a Global Age"
looks beyond the U.S. borders to the image of America in the wider
Justice Kennedy spoke about his experiences at several
high schools. To engage the students, Kennedy describes a young American
tourist whose beliefs are challenged by the citizens of a poor,
undemocratic country. The students are forced to think about the core
values of our democracy and legal system as they try to defend and
explain them to foreign citizens. The justice's description of the
students' initial responses was both exciting and frightening - some
students were "tremendously able," while others were "clueless."
However, he indicated that almost all students started to think and talk
about the concepts after some discussion. "The whole purpose [of the
program] is to focus on the first principles on which we are united,
that we must know and must reaffirm if we're to make the rest of the
world understand that democracy is not a threat, but a promise; that
democracy is not dangerous, but ultimately the safest system for the
world," said Kennedy.
I have been speaking to students about our legal system
since I was in law school and was encouraged by Kennedy's idea. However,
I question whether it goes far enough. I often hear that our schools are
not teaching students enough about our justice system. As Thomas
Jefferson said, "Education is the rich soil of a democracy. Without this
rich soil, our democracy will not grow and there will be no harvest of
freedom." We lawyers are uniquely positioned to share the core values of
our nation with young Americans - the next generation of leaders.
Wisconsin lawyers have been serving the community and schools for years
through law-related education and outreach, with support from the state
and local bars, and I will encourage the State Bar's support of the
ABA's new program. I urge lawyers to get involved in the schools, but I
would like to take it one step further.
The Wisconsin Legislature requires students to say the
Pledge of Allegiance or sing the National Anthem, but it doesn't require
courses on democracy, freedom, and our system of rights and
responsibilities. Ask most high school students why we have freedom of
speech, the presumption of innocence, the right to trial by jury, or the
right to vote, and you will understand why people worry about losing our
freedoms. In addition to requiring the Pledge of Allegiance, our
legislature should mandate a requirement that students take a civics or
American government course. If students understand why we have
democracy, rights, and responsibilities, perhaps reciting the Pledge
will have greater meaning.