THE BLOG

Mr. Common Law's Next Adventure

06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I know, I know. Now that President Obama has chosen a nominee for the Supreme Court, I'm supposed to be writing about Sonia Sotomayor.

I will, I will.

But before he disappears into the flinty wilderness of the rural New Hampshire he loves so dearly, let me first say a few words about David Souter.

My few words are about his few words.

He spoke his few words at a recent seminar at Georgetown University on the independence of the judiciary, one of a series convened by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

His few words were on a subject rarely covered in any depth by the mainstream media, but one whose importance to the future of our country cannot be over-stated.

Souter spoke of the spectacular ignorance of the American electorate about the government they select people to serve in. And the consequences of that ignorance.

The Republic "can be lost, it is being lost, it is lost, if it is not understood," Souter said, citing surveys showing that large majorities of the public cannot name the three branches of government. Or who don't even know there are three branches of government.

Souter's trepidation has been borne out by dozens of other embarrassing surveys over recent years. Virtually every one of them has concluded that our young people know virtually nothing -- and are being taught virtually nothing -- about the way the country they live in is organized and governed. And these results are as true for college grads as they are for middle school youngsters.

For example, in one survey, fifty percent of Americans famously were able to name four characters from "The Simpsons," but only two out of five were able to name all three branches of our federal government. And no more than one in seven could find Iraq on a map.

In his best-selling book, "Just How Stupid Are We?" author Rick Shenkman writes that such uninformed voters are misusing, abusing, and abdicating their political power. He argues that we must reform ourselves before we can begin to reassert that power.

The paradox here is that, over the past half century, the U.S. population has seen huge increases in their formal educational achievements. Yet their levels of political knowledge have remained static. The result is that today's college graduates know no more about politics than high school graduates knew back in 1950.

I find it unfortunate that our poor test scores relative to young people in other countries are usually lamented only in terms of our under-achievements in science, math and technology.

There is no argument that these subjects are critical to America's ability to compete in the increasingly globalized environment of the future. But education is about a lot more than competing. It is about learning. And if are young people are content with being uninformed, they will surely get the country they've asked for.

Many observers -- including me -- were mightily heartened by the record-breaking participation of young voters during the 2008 Presidential campaign. But I have a nagging feeling that many of them were excited and moved to action by the personality, rhetoric and compelling life narrative of Barack Obama.

That kind of enthusiasm won't teach them much about our country and its institutions, but it's a start. Taking the next step will involve restoring Civics 101 to our educational agenda. Even if we have to choose it over football.

Justice Souter is painfully aware of that imperative. He said we have to start with the "reeducation of a substantial part of the American population." What is needed, he added, is "the restoration of the self-identity of the American people."

At 69, Souter has little patience for talking the talk. He is more about walking the walk. And, as if to provide all of us with a real life example, he has joined a committee sponsored by the New Hampshire Supreme Court Society that is dedicated to developing a civic education curriculum for New Hampshire's public school classrooms.

When he parts with the Supremes at the end of the current term, Souter plans to return to his hometown of Weare, New Hampshire. In retirement, we should not be at all surprised to find this most down-to-earth common-sense judge teaching that new course in Civics 101.

"If I can do it, you can do it too," Souter told his audience.

Yes, we can!