U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Teaches Teachers
By Dorothy Davis
“How the heck can I teach teachers?” asked Justice Sotomayor. “You know you’re the gateway not just to knowledge, but to kids learning to enjoy learning…figuring out what the world is about so they can be part of a vibrant and growing society.”
Justice Sotomayor spoke at the New-York Historical Society’s kickoff of a project to invigorate the teaching of the Constitution. She was joined by Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University and Professor Linda Greenhouse of Yale Law School. Co-sponsors NYHS, Institute for Constitutional History, New York University, American Historical Association seek to fill the gap caused by Congress’s ending the Teaching American History Grant Program.
“Serious study of the Constitution has fallen out of vogue. We are addressing that since one of the main purposes of education is to educate a strong and active citizenry,” said organizer Mia Nagawiecki, Director of Education at the NYHS.
“Tell students,” said Justice Sotomayor, “that our Founding Fathers were rebels! They started a war for freedom, were not very conservative, but provocative, daring, courageous! It took all those qualities to create a nation and a unique Constitution.” After her brief remarks she answered questions:
Q: “How can we guarantee equal education for all?
A: “Rethink the financing. We can’t have a system based on property taxes in which the more wealthy areas have more resources.”
Q: What do you think about immigration reform?
A: I can’t tell you because that issue will come before the court. Laws don’t get passed by judges, but by people. It’s up to you to do something to change laws you don’t like. That requires an involved citizenry—why I’m so grateful for all of you teachers here to learn more about the Constitution. There is a wonderful, interactive website for you—Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s www.icivics.com.
Q: How should we teach the Constitution to students new to the U.S.?
A: Their understanding of government has not been positive. I tell them we have a democracy—if you become a citizen you have the right to express yourself, to vote people out of office—rights created in the Constitution. We are participants in our government, not bystanders to it! Create programs not just to educate children but to open up possibilities for parents! If you can achieve that you will have great success with students! Good luck!
Professor Sanford Levinson (University of Texas Law School, author of “Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong and How We the People Can Correct It” & “Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Government.” To Come: “Faultlines in the Constitution” for 11-16 year olds).
“There is not only one Constitution in the U. S. Each state his its own. Education isn’t protected by the U.S. Constitution” but is by State legislation. Massachusetts protects environmental rights. We don’t venerate state constitutions as much as we do the flawed U.S. Constitution. Topics to discuss: Are all kinds of religions to be tolerated? Equal rights—what does it mean? Bicameralism? Presidential Veto? An earlier Inauguration Day? Is the Constitution too difficult to amend?
Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University, author of “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877”—the least understood period of American history—conducted a detailed analysis of the 14th & 15th Amendments. “Every session of the Supreme Court deals with some issue arising out of the 14th Amendment” [equal protection under the law]. To a question about how to get kids excited about the Constitution and the Supreme Court in view of the Roberts courts 5-4 politically motivated decisions overturning our rights, he recommended studying opposing opinions. “The online resources of the Supreme Court enable you to get behind the sound bites and into the nitty-gritty.”
Professor Linda Greenhouse (Yale Law School, the NY Times) discussed “Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court in the Obama Era.” She recommended “Brown vs. the Board of Education” as “a safe Supreme Court decision to teach.” In recent court decisions “the First Amendment [the Bill of Rights] has become a major tool of deregulation. We’re trained to think it is an unalloyed good thing—but it has been flipped…with pharmaceutical and tobacco industries upholding the rights of corporate free speech to invalidate regulations. “Shelby vs. Holder” “cut the heart out of voting rights…an audacious decision, oblivious to Constitutional history.” She reminded people that Presidents nominate Justices, so if they want to turn things around they should “keep that in mind when they go to the polls in Presidential elections.”
A panel of education professors then discussed ways “to put this rich content to use in the classroom.”
“We hope to work with a strong cohort of dedicated educators to develop teaching strategies,” concluded Mia Nagawiecki. Please contact us if you are interested!
What did teachers think of the event? Their responses ranged from “It’s Great!” to “It’s Excellent!”#