OCBA UPDATE: Flunking civics

By James G. Derian

The statistics are pretty dismal for a country like ours that prides itself on being the world's leading democracy. Barely one out of three Americans can identify the three branches of government, much less explain what each of them do. Incredibly, some of these same polls also show that three out of four Americans don't understand that the Constitution protects religious freedom. Part of this problem undoubtedly stems from the fact that less than half of our 50 states require civics classes in high school, and only three states require civics in middle school.1

Closer to home, only 38.6 percent of Michigan high school juniors passed the social studies section of the 2013 Michigan Merit Examination (MME). Sadly, this statistic represents a steady downward trend for social studies proficiency since the MME was first administered in 2008.2

Obviously, the above statistics and polling data do not speak well for a society that is based on the rule of law and dependent on an informed citizenry to elect capable leadership. Our country's future viability as a democracy depends on the integrity of our legal institutions, our commitment to the rule of law and our understanding of constitutional democracy. That future is jeopardized when there is a fundamental lack of understanding of how the three branches of our constitutional democracy are supposed to work. There is often a loud public outcry against the judiciary for supposedly thwarting democracy when the Supreme Court strikes down a legislative enactment. Many of these folks simply don't understand or appreciate, however, that the judiciary's duty is to uphold the Constitution, not follow the majority of the electorate or cater to the wishes of the politicians who appointed them and their political agenda.

Our 2013-2014 State Bar president, Bruce Courtade, has tirelessly promoted law-related education during the past year, calling on lawyers to be "the town criers for civic education and the rule of law." Paraphrasing a famous quote from President Abraham Lincoln, Bruce has advocated teaching our children "the virtues of the justice system so we do not have to help them understand it as adults." The State Bar of Michigan is a tremendous resource for all those interested in law-related education. The clearinghouse for these resources is on the State Bar's website at http://www.michbar.org/generalinfo/lawlinks.cfm.

Teaching government and civics is a more pressing issue today than it was a generation ago. With school funding cuts, the virtual disappearance of objective news reporting, the endless partisan sniping and gridlock, as well as the alluring distractions of the Internet, young people have become increasingly disengaged from civic and political life. Worse yet, there are huge gaps in their knowledge of the basic principles of American government. As a result, many young Americans are not being adequately prepared to fully participate in our democracy.

This problem cuts across all socio-economic classes, but there is also evidence of what some have described as a growing "civic achievement gap" between wealthy, white, American-born youths - who demonstrate consistently higher levels of civic knowledge and participation - and poor, nonwhite and immigrant youths. This growing civic educational gap obviously will only exacerbate the problem, further disadvantaging the already disadvantaged.3 But, it's certainly consistent with the ongoing nationwide decline of our public school systems and the growing disparities in wealth that have become progressively more pronounced during the past 20 years.

So, what can we lawyers do to help better educate young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, about our Constitution and system of government? Beginning this fall, the OCBA will be presenting a series of Constitution-themed programs for 7th and 8th graders in the public and charter schools of Pontiac. We'll be starting on Constitution Day, September 17, 2013, in the Walton Charter Academy and the Michigan School for the Arts. We'll be following up with programs in other Pontiac schools later in the year. These are tough times for the Pontiac schools because of the city's ongoing fiscal crisis and the outflow of students from the district. But, thanks to the efforts of OCBA board member and 50th District Court Judge Cynthia Walker, we have been able to establish and maintain an effective line of communication with the Pontiac schools, despite all the distractions and disruptions of the current crisis.

Pontiac is our county seat and the Pontiac schools need us the most, so this is the logical place for us to start. I'm hopeful that in the future, however, we can expand this program to other schools in Oakland County that need us. In that regard, we're fortunate to have on our planning committee Judge Michael Warren. Judge Warren is a former member of the State Board of Education; a current board member of Cornerstone Schools; and the founder, along with his daughter Leah, of the Patriot Week project. Judge Warren is also the author of a 2008 book titled "America's Survival Guide," which, despite its apocalyptic title, is actually a very succinct informative history of the intellectual foundations of the U.S. Constitution and the basic principles embodied in it. Whether you agree or disagree with Judge Warren's call to action at the end of the book, it's still a good read and I recommend it to all who are interested in the subject.

Speaking of calls to action, the OCBA is putting out a call for volunteers to take part in our upcoming Constitution-themed programs in the Pontiac schools during the 2013-2014 school year. The time commitment won't be bad. Our volunteers should be able to prepare in as little as an hour or two, and the programs themselves will be two hours, max. This year our volunteers will take part in a dramatic courtroom re-enactment, and afterward, review with the students and teachers what they learned. In future years, our volunteers may be equipped with lesson plans and sent in pairs to a school to lead a one-hour class on the Constitution. If you're interested in taking part of one of this year's Constitution-themed programs, please email me at the address below.

Now I'd like to hear from you. What do you think of our Constitution Day initiative in the Pontiac schools? What type of law-related education might prompt you to volunteer and get involved? What do you like or dislike about the views I've expressed in this month's commentary? Your views matter to me. Email me at james.derian@delphi.com.



1 Hansen, "Flunking Civics: Why America's Kids Know So Little," 97 ABAJ 32 (2011).

2 State of Michigan, Education and Children, www.michigan.gov/mde/0,4615,7-140-22709_35150_47474-306702--,00.html.

3 Jamieson, "The Challenges Facing Civic Education in the 21st Century," Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Spring 2013.


James G. Derian, corporate counsel for Delphi Automotive Systems LLC, is the 81st president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Published: Mon, Sep 16, 2013