Q & A: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor still credits her early civics lessons as a child in El Paso, Texas, for helping her understand the important rights and responsibilities that come with being an American citizen. Concerned with the steady decline of civics education in schools, in 2009 Justice O’Connor founded iCivics, a website that provides free interactive games and teaching materials on the subject. Schools in all 50 states use iCivics in their classrooms.

Civic knowledge is not passed down through the gene pool; it must be taught.

Amplify asked Justice O’Connor for her thoughts on the importance of civics education, the goals of iCivics, and the role technology can play in engaging young people in their studies.

Amplify: How would you describe the state of civics education in American schools today?

Justice O’Connor: Civic learning in American schools is not what it should be, as statistics show. Only 7 percent of eighth-graders can name the three branches of government. Less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy—and these are our next generation of voters!

The impetus for widespread public schooling was to make students into informed citizens. We should still be preparing students to be informed citizens. Civic learning is not what it was, but there are signs that it is getting better. States around the country have passed or are introducing legislation to make civics part of their education requirements. The United States Department of Education has brought together working groups and published reports on the importance of civic learning. We’re starting to get back on the right path, but we need to keep at it.

Amplify: Why is civics education at the grade-school and high-school levels so important, in your opinion?

Justice O’Connor: We are always asking children what they are going to be when they grow up. If you had asked me when I was a girl, I probably would have told you a cowgirl, not a justice on the United States Supreme Court. But whether that young person answers cowgirl, firefighter, teacher, video-game designer, or justice, we do know one thing for certain: American youth are now and will grow up to be citizens. We need to give them the education and tools to be the best citizens they can be.

We face many challenges as a country, challenges involving the economy, education, foreign policy, and more. No matter what we would like to think, these are challenges that will remain with us long into the future, and we need to prepare each generation to confront the challenges and opportunities that face us as a nation. Civic knowledge is not passed down through the gene pool; it must be taught.

Amplify: You have talked about how much civics education you had as a young person. What impact did it have on you?

Justice O’Connor: I had civics classes when I was going to school in El Paso, Texas. There were some days when I wished I’d never hear the names Stephen Austin or Sam Houston again! The subject matter was interesting to me, and it also showed me the power of being a citizen: your rights and responsibilities, and the effect you can have on your community, your state, or even the entire country.

Amplify: You made history by becoming the first woman to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Do you think civics education is especially important for young women?

Justice O’Connor: Civic learning is especially important for all young people. I do like to see young women engaging in their communities and exercising their rights and responsibilities. More than 50 percent of our population is female, so we can expect to see even more women pursue public office and community leadership roles. Things have changed so much from the day I struggled to be hired as a lawyer after graduating third in my class from Stanford Law School, and I am gratified to see Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court. But just because things have changed, it does not mean we stop trying to prepare and encourage the next generation for active, engaged participation in civic life.

Amplify: How many students are currently using iCivics?

Justice O’Connor: Nearly 3 million students have used iCivics. It’s wonderful that so many young people and their teachers have embraced the program, and it shows what we knew: the iCivics method works, engaging teachers and students alike.

Amplify: What are your ultimate goals for its usage?

Justice O’Connor: I would like to see iCivics in every middle school in the country. And since much of the material can be used by younger or older students, I would not mind seeing it in many high school classrooms, as well! But my ultimate goal is to get young people around the country excited by civics rather than treating it as a boring subject they just have to “get through.” I want students to be engaged and ready to participate in our democracy as informed citizens.

Amplify: Besides the fact that kids like technology and they’re accustomed to it, what other reasons spurred you to choose computers and games as the venue for iCivics?

Justice O’Connor: Games, like civics, are about navigating a system. You learn rules, make choices, and have to engage with the world in which you are playing. Games are engaging for young people. Rather than learning a dry list of facts and figures about what the president does, a student can learn about executive power by being the president in a game, making choices about what policies to support, how to conduct diplomacy, and delegating power to executive agencies. If you said the phrase “delegate authority to an executive agency” to a seventh-grader, you can imagine the look you’d get. But when they are doing it in the context of a game, it becomes both real and compelling.

Further, more of our civic life is happening online. Town hall meetings are happening on YouTube, elected officials are tweeting back and forth directly with their constituents, and Facebook is being used to organize citizen action and petition. Technology is changing civic life, so we should be using technology to teach students about civic life.

And iCivics also has resources beyond games, including lesson plans, curriculum units, and classroom simulations.

Amplify: What potential do you think technology has to change education in a general sense?

Justice O’Connor: Technology is opening up new worlds to students. They can learn in different ways. They can connect with their communities, or communities across the country. There are so many resources for learning and research and new skills. We need to make sure that we do not think of technology as an all-encompassing solution to education, but we can use it effectively and intelligently to improve and innovate.

Amplify: Are there any upcoming changes or new developments in the works for iCivics?

Justice O’Connor: There is always something exciting happening at iCivics. We recently completed what amounts to a comprehensive semester-long civics class for teachers who want to implement iCivics from start to finish in their classrooms. If you compiled all of those resources, there would be enough to rival any textbook, though I doubt most textbooks are as engaging as iCivics.

iCivics is also launching an exciting new tool for classrooms later this fall. It is called Drafting Board and it uses civics topics like First Amendment rights for students to teach young people how to write an essay using evidence and arguments and rebuttals. And of course, there are always new games and classroom activities being produced.

Amplify: Have you heard from students and teachers who have used iCivics?

Justice O’Connor: I do hear from students and teachers, and it is one of my favorite outcomes of iCivics. Students tell us that civics is their favorite class and that they are learning so much. One young man wrote to say that our games are more fun than Call of Duty, which the iCivics staff assures me is high praise, indeed. Teachers say that they see their students “engaging.” One letter I received from a teacher in Chicago was particularly powerful. He wrote to tell me that he teaches in a school where 95 percent of the students live below the poverty line. Many of the students who entered his classroom could not even name the country in which they lived. But all that is changing. “My students can now describe the three branches of government, explain how laws are made, and invoke amendments from the Bill of Rights when debating constitutionality in various scenarios,” he said.

This letter made my day. It said exactly what we all hoped would be achieved by iCivics. It is proof that we are reaching the goals we set for ourselves and that the iCivics program works.

Amplify: What advice do you have for parents who want to get their children interested in current events and civic participation, or teachers who want to get their students involved?

Justice O’Connor: Talk to your children and students. Have conversations with them about issues and the news of the day. Educate yourselves so you can then educate the children in your life. Parents can teach by example—volunteer for a community project and take your children. Vote. When a summons for jury duty comes, don’t grumble about it but embrace it as part of your responsibilities as a citizen. Teachers can engage their classrooms in longer-term projects and lessons that involve tackling issues in the community. There are so many ways to be an engaged citizen. Give children the knowledge they need to be effective, and then start providing them with the opportunities to exercise that knowledge in a meaningful way.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor served on the Supreme Court from 1981 to 2005, and was the first woman to become a member of the Supreme Court. She has served in all three branches of government, and at the local, state, and national level. Focused on the importance of civic education and civic participation, Justice O’Connor founded iCivics when she retired from the Court in 2005.

Photograph by Dane Penland, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. Views and opinions expressed by the author or interview subject do not necessarily state or reflect those of Amplify Education Inc. This article should not be taken to imply endorsement or recommendation of Amplify products or services by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or the Supreme Court of the United States.