Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on iCivics

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013 - 1:47pm
Updated: Monday, November 27, 2023 - 12:28pm

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Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. Since resigning from the bench, Justice O’Connor has focused on getting kids to know more about how federal, state and local governments work. Her iCivics project helps kids test their knowledge through a computer program.

Justice O’Connor told Steve Goldstein that too many states have removed civics from their school curricula.

SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: They can’t name the three branches of government, they can’t name the president, there’s very little understanding. It seems to me that one of the most important things we can do for young people when they are in school is to make sure that they know and understand our structure of government — federal, state and local — how it works and how they’re part of it. This is really critical for us. So whatever we’re not doing, we have to pick up the reins and go. Part of it, probably, is the result of our more recent focus on math and science and some deficiencies there. Those things need attention, no question, I’m all for it. But we must not stop teaching young people what I call civics, how our government is structured and how it works - that’s a life-long requirement. And so that’s why I started this iCivics program with an effort to have video clips that are engaging for young people and keep them interested and in the process of having games they learn how the government works and how they’re part of it.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: How much are we missing as a community and as a country and how much does it contradict our own history when we’re not teaching kids more about civics?

O'CONNOR: When our nation was formed, we ended up with a quite impressive Constitution and system of government — that was good. And about 30 years later, people began to realize that if they didn’t teach young people about this system, that it would be meaningless. So that was why we got public schools in America. Today, we’re very interested in making sure our young people are better in math and science and things like that, and in the process many states have stopped making civics a requirement. The results of that are shocking. Maybe half of young people can’t name the three branches of government, can’t say what they do, how they’re part of it. We can’t have that, that’s just totally wrong. And so there is a lot of catching up to do.

GOLDSTEIN:  Do you have grandchildren, great-grandchildren?

O'CONNOR: I have six grandchildren, no great-grandchildren yet.

GOLDSTEIN: And how do you feel about what they learned in school and what they know about the government?

O'CONNOR: Well, they are learning now and I hope it’s going a long — you aren’t sure but I hope that their getting proficient.

GOLDSTEIN: Do they see you as more than "grandma" — can they come to and ask you for questions?

O'CONNOR: Well, they can, but they don’t.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you wish they did?

O'CONNOR: I do wish they did!

GOLDSTEIN: You’re a strong supporter of civil conversation and you were on the Supreme Court for more than a quarter century and a lot of people think boy, there must be some real contentiousness there. But how important is civil conversation when it comes to making a decision amongst the nine justices?

O'CONNOR: That’s an important part of serving as a justice — to maintain a cordial relationship among all the justices — that’s very important to do.  Because you are inevitability going to have issues on which people differ and you’ll be in agreement with one on one issue and in disagreement on another.  But you have to keep the relations cordial at all times and be willing to discuss intellectually and decently all of the issues.

GOLDSTEIN: Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.