Our Courts is a unique collaboration to teach middle school students about the judiciary and other parts of government, using a web-based learning environment. Other partners in the project, which is chaired by Justice O'Connor, are the ASU Applied Learning Technologies Institute and the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Our Courts’ genesis is rooted in a conference chaired by Justice O’Connor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, which was held in September 2006 at Georgetown University Law Center. The conference brought together leading judges, lawyers, government officials and representatives from business and media to discuss the increasing threat to judicial independence. Conference attendees agreed one of the root causes of the judiciary’s present difficulties is the lack of effective civics training in schools.
“Knowledge of our Constitution and the role of our courts is not handed down in the gene pool,” Justice O’Connor said. “Each generation must learn about our system of government and the citizen’s role.”
Studies by the Carnegie Corporation and the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, among others, indicate that middle- and high-school students in the United States, by and large, don’t receive the educational foundation necessary to empower them to be responsible citizens. Although the constitutions of 40 states mention the importance of civics literacy and 13 provide that civics education is a central purpose of public education, civics education has lost ground to other subjects. Today, civics training usually consists of a one-semester course, rather than the three classes that were part of the usual school curriculum in the 1960s.
According to a recent national survey by the National Constitution Center, more American teenagers could name three of the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. More knew the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” than the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and which city has the zip code “90210” than the city in which the U.S. Constitution was written. Nine of 10 could name the star of “Titanic,” compared to the seven in 10 who knew the name of the vice president of the United States.