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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 01, 2002

    President's Message

    The legislature should mandate civics or american government course for state students.

    Gerry Mowris

    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 75, No. 3, March 2002

    Dialogue on Freedom

    The legislature should mandate civics or american government course for state students.

    by Gerry Mowris

    Gerald MowrisAT 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 world.

    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.


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