Educating for Democracy: The Rule of Law and the Law of the Rulers -- A Lesson for Memorial Day

05/24/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2016

On the occasion of Memorial Day, I thought it appropriate to write about the importance of citizenship and the apparent contradictions between our ideals and the reality of living in what is supposed to be a democratic society ruled by law.

A few weeks ago I was disappointed to realize that almost none of my very talented evening-class students at Kingsborough Community College could name either of our U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand, let alone the students' representatives in Albany or on the New York City Council. I have gotten to know a number of these students as conscientious and focused on their work despite the fact that many of them have full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Yet -- and I don't fault them for it -- they feel uninvolved in what is going on in the world of politics. Perhaps they justifiably believe that they have no stake in the political system since they see little if any tangible improvements in their workday lives. Yet I wonder: Shouldn't they feel the responsibility of informing themselves on the issues and controversies that are continuing to have an impact, both negative and positive, on the city, state and nation? With the various privileges of being American citizens or applying for citizenship, shouldn't they see that they have obligations as well?

What I am describing is more precisely named "civics," a subject rarely taught in the public schools today, despite the need for our future generations to become familiar with the workings of their government. According to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a national assessment of educational progress administered by the National Assessment Governing Board found the following:

Two-thirds of students scored below 'proficient' on the last national civics assessment administered in 2010; less than half of 8th graders surveyed knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights; only 1 in 10 had age appropriate knowledge of the system of checks and balances between our branches of government.  These results are the same as the results of the last two National Assessments in Civics conducted in 2006 and 1998.

But as important as it is for students to know the history and present practices of the Congress and state and municipal representatives, I think that a feeling of cynicism about the way our country is governed comes from my students' perception that laws that are supposed to treat all people equally are enforced by a two-tier justice system. Since the media have been regularly reporting on indictments and investigations of corporate crime and those responsible for billions of dollars through illegal activity, it becomes apparent that these rich and powerful figures, who now have "the best government money can buy," enjoy a "law of the rulers" instead of the "rule of law" for which many Americans have fought and died in defending this country. Instead of jail sentences, they are only required to pay a fine and are apparently exempt from criminal prosecution while, as many of my students know, poor people can be put in jail for something as minor as an unpaid traffic ticket. It is hard to argue that the "rule of law" that is supposed to impartially govern all of us is credible when the felonious behavior of the wealthy and powerful suffer little consequences when the "law of the rulers" prevails.

As a lawyer I've known for many years succinctly put it, "if the law were just, half of the people working on Wall Street would be in jail." But what I see as a broader issue concerns the general population. It is difficult to make an argument to respect the law when the laws themselves and the way they are carried out -- especially toward people of color -- seem to be so disrespectful to those who are victimized by them.

Today the corporate world's obsession with money -- increasing profits, dividends, stock values -- seems to assume that violation of the law is merely "the cost of doing business." It is hard to understand, then, how the "rulers of the law" can assume respect for the law from the general populace when they can avoid the full consequences of their actions through the "law of the rulers." For instance, as recently reported in the coverage of the oil spill in Santa Barbara, which has done an enormous amount of environmental damage, the owners of the pipeline that erupted had been frequently cited for violations of their safety requirements without serious consequences to their business:

Environmentalists are directing their anger at [Plains All American Pipeline] for failing to prevent such a disaster, particularly in light of what they consider frequent red flags: a history of federal safety infractions.

Plains was cited for 10 crude oil spills between June 2004 and September 2007 in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas -- resulting in a $3.25 million civil penalty in 2010.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Plains had agreed to spend about $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles of its pipeline, resolving its Clean Water Act violations.

Since 2006, the Los Angeles Times reports, Plains has racked up 175 violations of safety and maintenance codes; an analysis of federal records revealed that the company's rate of incidents per mile of pipe was more than three times the national average.

To my way of thinking, the remedy for such lawless behavior -- when the "rule of law" is respected -- should have been jail time for the corporate executives, and the closing of their business and the awarding the contracts for these services to more conscientious companies that have as much regard for the environment as they do for the bottom line. That's a much more effective way of discouraging the corporate culture's illegal behavior, by assuring them that their own lawlessness will have personal consequences to them rather than a fiscal slap on the wrist.

Until the "rule of law" is truly the law of the land, the respect for the law is in danger of being dismissed as moral hypocrisy. That the obsession with money is endangering the quality of our culture makes me feel somewhat vindicated in my own view, as an educator, that the purpose of learning things is not to become materially successful at all costs but to know how to live life fully. I try to teach my students a way of doing this through their creative work; there the "law of the rulers" has less influence, for the "rules" of good writing are the ones that they learn to respect. A recent class I taught rewarded me with a model of what education is all about: sharing ideas, suggesting new ones and, above all, not being obsessed with the "market value" of learning. The greatest rewards of living cannot be bought; they are beyond pricing. I am hoping that my students will take to heart one of the most important elements in a democratic society: that -- to paraphrase a great idea -- the value of human beings cannot be measured by the quantity of their money but by the quality of their character, and that's a civics lesson for Memorial Day that we should all take to heart.