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Law and Civic Education

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At a time when the phrase "legal education" evokes images of state-of-the-art graduate institutions and intimidating textbooks larger than the bleary-eyed students transporting them, it's hard to believe that there was once a time in our nation's history where law was considered an essential part of every student's education. But our nation's founding generation believed -- as constitutional framer and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson once proudly proclaimed -- that "the science of law" should be "the study of every free citizen."

In the centuries since, however, this vision has been lost in the curricular shuffle of graduation tests and school reform movements that emphasize the importance of a few "practical" subjects over others. My experience working with "Street Law," a nationwide program dedicated to teaching high school students about the law, has shown me just how unfortunate this loss truly is.

"Bro, this constitutional interpretation stuff is hot; it's way cooler than that boring stuff they teach us in our social studies class." This was one of the more memorable pieces of feedback I received from a high school student during my time as an instructor with Georgetown University Law Center's Street Law Clinic. Now, there's a lot that can be said about the student's statement -- such as the interesting choice of adjectives -- but what's most notable is the fact that the student who was making it was a juvenile offender mandated to attend the course as part of his court-ordered rehabilitation. On the first day of class, he didn't even know what the Constitution was; by the end of the semester, he was vigorously arguing with his classmates about contemporary constitutional topics such as the legality of the American-led operations in Libya and the relevance of the founding generation's view of the Constitution to its present-day interpretation. "Hot," indeed.

While this student's experience may seem extraordinary, it is not unusual. The Street Law participants I've worked with demonstrate genuine excitement when given the opportunity to learn about the rules that govern their lives. In fact, I've seen students as young as fourteen whole-heartedly embrace the intellectual challenge of confronting the competing values that any legal system must balance. And they've done so in unexpected ways. For example, at the Juvenile Detention Center where I once taught as part of Berkeley Law's Advocates for Youth Justice program, some of the very same students who were once unwilling participants in the criminal justice system willingly took on the prosecutorial role in our mock trial, aggressively advocating for strict enforcement of our nation's criminal laws.

Stories like these are notable not only because of the at-risk, low-achieving populations they come from, but also because of the frequency with which we are said to be experiencing a national crisis in civic education. Indeed, the most comprehensive study on civic achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, recently reported that only about a quarter of all American students qualify as proficient in civics. With the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001, and the concomitant emphasis on preparing students for the reading and math tests that determine federal funding under that program, classes on government have fallen by the wayside.

Programs such as Street Law help compensate for this problem, and they do it by placing a special emphasis on law. Indeed, the study of law -- as distinct from traditional government courses -- is generally absent from the meager civics curriculum that does exist in most schools. This means that essential topics such as constitutional law, criminal law, and contracts receive scant attention. As a result, high school graduates, who are at the most important time in their civic development, know precious little about their legal rights and responsibilities or the extent and limits of government power.

But the American approach to education was not always so law-averse. As legal historian Michael Hoeflich writes, at the time our country was founded, "law was literally everywhere" -- it was taught in our primary schools, secondary schools, and even at home. This practice reflected that era's prevailing pedagogical view, espoused by educational pioneers such as Noah Webster, the so-called "Father of American Scholarship and Education," that instruction in law should begin as early as possible and continue throughout a student's education.

Sadly, however, this vision of a citizenry learned in the law has receded from American life, and as a result, from American education. This is truly a loss for our nation's students. Beyond my anecdotal evidence about Street Law, teaching law in our primary and secondary schools just makes sense. Philosophically speaking, the success of our constitutional democracy hinges upon the knowledge of its citizens, which means that it is particularly problematic that we live in a society where nearly twice as many Americans can name at least two characters from The Simpsons (52%) than can name two or more rights protected by the First Amendment (28%). If, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, the public is "not enlightened enough" to exercise the "ultimate powers of society," then the only remedy is to "inform their discretion by education."

As a practical matter, incorporating legal instruction into our nation's schools would help cultivate a greater level of thoughtfulness in American society with the potential for wide-ranging benefits. That's because the basic skill that legal education seeks to instill, legal reasoning, isn't actually legal at all. Rather, it is simply the ability to think critically about problems of public importance. With that in mind, it's no surprise that law school graduates often go on to have successful careers in a wide array of non-legal fields, such as business consulting and finance. A little Socratic method can go a long way.

In terms of making such curricular reforms a reality, it's worth noting that programs such as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's iCivics program, which enables students to run their very own constitutional law firm through the online game Do I Have a Right?, and the Harlan Institute's Harlan Connect, which allows high school classes to arrange webcam lessons on recent Supreme Court cases from lawyers and law professors, already provide civics teachers with ways of incorporating law into their curriculum. For more comprehensive reforms, policymakers should establish a Teach for America-like program geared specifically toward attracting law school graduates to careers in law-related education at the primary and secondary school level (to be sure, there is no shortage of unemployed law school graduates these days).

However it is ultimately accomplished, though, the point remains the same: we ought to be teaching our nation's students about law, rights, and the operation of our system of justice. A future generation of law-abiding, rights-respecting citizens depends upon it.