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Sandra Day O’Connor and the promise of civic education

The former Supreme Court justice was a staunch advocate for teaching schoolchildren about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, which might be the only way to heal our polarized society.

A few weeks ago, I asked a pro-Palestinian student at the University of Pennsylvania whether she had spoken with members of Hillel — a Jewish-themed group — about the war in Gaza.

“No,” she said. “Where would we start?”

Her question demonstrates the poor quality of dialogue on our campuses, about Israel-Palestine and much else. And it also underscores the need for civic education in our K-12 schools. If we want young people to talk across their differences, we need to start teaching that skill long before they get to college.

That was the lifelong passion of Sandra Day O’Connor, who died Dec. 1 and was laid to rest last week. A swing vote on the often-polarized U.S. Supreme Court, O’Connor was remembered for her landmark decisions on abortion, affirmative action, and much else. But she was also a staunch advocate for civic education in our schools, which might be the only way to heal our polarized society.

When O’Connor founded the nonprofit Our Courts in 2009, three years after her retirement from the Supreme Court, she noted that just one in seven Americans could name the chief justice of the court but “two-thirds can name at least one judge of ‘American Idol.’” American democracy wouldn’t work, she argued, unless schools taught Americans basic facts about it.

But she also called upon schools to move beyond “boring textbooks” and rote memorization, the bane of traditional civics classes. You could identify the chief justice — or enumerate the rights of an American citizen — without knowing how to exert those rights. Citizenship isn’t just something you study for a test, O’Connor insisted, it’s something you do for your country, and for yourself. It takes practice.

Since then, a dense network of organizations has taken up O’Connor’s cause. Now called iCivics, the group she founded creates interactive online games and lessons to teach students about American government and — most of all — to encourage them to participate in it. Over the past two years, 16 states have passed laws expanding civic education. And last December, Congress appropriated $23 million to improve instruction on the subject.

At the same time, though, dozens of states have considered or enacted laws barring schools from addressing “divisive concepts,” especially around race and gender. It’s hard to imagine how we can teach students to speak across their differences if we are also restricting discussion of those differences.

Most of all, you can’t teach people how to disagree in places where they think the same way. Our cities are overwhelmingly Democratic, while Republicans dominate rural areas. And even within the same community, we cluster into zip codes of the like-minded. If you see a “Re-elect Biden” sign anywhere in America, don’t look for a “Trump 2024″ banner nearby. You’ll need to travel across town to find it.

Our classrooms reflect the same patterns. Despite the growth of charter schools, which draw students from multiple communities, most children still attend school in the neighborhoods where they live. And since kids generally echo the political perspectives they hear at home, they’re unlikely to encounter peers with divergent views at school.

There’s evidence that our children are becoming as polarized as we are.

Indeed, there’s evidence that our children are becoming as polarized as we are. According to a study published last year, adolescents are far more likely to express distrust for opposing political parties than they were in prior decades.

We’ll never overcome that problem if we remain sequestered in our geographic and political bubbles. That’s why every civics class in America should be paired online with a class in a different community. If you live in the reddest part of Alabama, you’ll be patched into a classroom in Manhattan. Kids in San Francisco will talk to kids in Wyoming.

Teachers would meet in the summer to plan out the topics of conversation — including abortion, gun control, and, yes, Israel-Palestine — and to establish ground rules: Everyone gets their say, but no one gets to denigrate or abuse someone else.

Researchers at UCLA recently found that adults who held Zoom discussions with people of a different political party developed a deeper respect for other views and became less rigid about their own. That’s great, but it’s also too late. We need to begin these conversations at the youngest ages, so our future citizens learn how to engage in them.

In a recent tribute to Sandra Day O’Connor, one of her former clerks wrote that O’Connor “encouraged all of us to speak up forthrightly and to disagree — strongly but respectfully.” But O’Connor also understood that we needed to practice that skill, like any other one, or we wouldn’t learn it.

That’s why our schools need to teach it. Americans have forgotten how to disagree, strongly but respectfully. Maybe our kids — and their teachers — can help us remember.