Who Is George Washington?

One of my favorite segments of the Jay Leno Tonight show is when they stop people in the street and ask them questions on history and historical figures. Most recently, they asked a young woman who was George Washington? She thought he was maybe a president, probably number 50. Jay looked at her and said we have not had that many yet. She was unembarrassed. Other people were asked who were Lewis and Clark. Huh?

Our knowledge of civics and American government is atrocious. Two thirds of the American people can name at least one judge on the "American Idol." Fewer than ten percent can name the Chief Justices of the US Supreme Court. Some have blamed that ignorance on the fact that the No Child Left Behind requirements put so much emphasis on reading and mathematics that schools do not teach the social studies areas of the curriculum. Why does requiring American kids to know how to read and do simple math somehow cut so deeply into their knowledge base that they do not know who the first president is?

Now we have former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor working with Georgetown University Law School and the University of Arizona to develop a website and interactive video for seventh, eighth and ninth grade students which will focus on the courts. The website will be http://www.ourcourts.org/ which will be up and running this fall.

Justice O'Connor has expressed increasing concern about the attacks by members of Congress, members of the state legislatures, and various interest groups on judges. This assault is a right wing attack on gutless secular humanists who distort the true intent of the Constitution etc. We all know the argument. Liberal judges disrespect the law when they bend it to meet modern life; the conservative judges however show respect for the true intent of the law when they use conservative ideological litmus tests to adjudicate their cases.

The assumption the Justice is making is that if only we know more about the courts we will come to respect them more. That may be so on a very basic level. But the real reason these foes of the court are so vocal is not that they do not know their civics, but because they are a part of a rule or ruin political climate that started with Richard Nixon and became especially pronounced under Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and GW Bush. These partisans have given some substance to the Marxist notion that the law is not a search for justice, but a veil to cover the interests of the rich and powerful. One could get them to read and memorize the Constitution, the Federalist papers, and Chief Justice John Marshall's early decisions on nationalism and still it would not calm down those who are unhappy with the courts. For the critics see the law as instruments to carry their agenda: to expand the immunities of incorporated business, to cut back on personal rights, to narrow the grounds of affirmative action and class action suits, to allow greater religious intrusions into our governmental institutions, to end campaign spending limits, to avoid using any developing legal concepts from Europe.

Obviously the young should know their civics and the history of their own (and other) nations. But as they grow older, they and we must respect the impartiality of the law, the use of reason rather than ideology in making legal arguments, and the need to respect the opinions of others.

Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey. Who Is George Washington?