Democracy Is Born in the Classrooms of Each Generation

Susan J. KohlmannHappy Law Day! Today, we enthusiastically join our friends at the ABA in celebrating Law Day by focusing on rebuilding the Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration.

The need to rebuild is clear when you consider what we’ve been through over the past several years. Like many tragedies, the January 6 attack on the Capitol was shocking and yet, it somehow felt inevitable. The events that led up to it and its aftermath have been the subject of scrutiny and censure by many observers, including the New York City Bar Association’s Task Force on the Rule of Law. While some may have seen it, or something like it, coming, bearing witness to the violent attacks as they unfolded was something else entirely.

Shockingly, it has been reported that one out of three in America believe violent acts against our government are sometimes justified. When so many Americans believe this, it’s time to teach that “civics” is the key to “civil” discourse – with both words coming from the same Latin root – and that civil discourse is indispensable for democracy. 

Last week, the City Bar was honored to co-host, with the Historical Society of the New York Courts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ukraine, Vsevolod Kniaziev. In his remarks, he explained that even in the midst of war, he and his colleagues are focused on teaching civics education to the children of Ukraine. His words echoed those of John Dewey, who wrote that democracy “has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

If Mr. Dewey were with us today, he would say we had better get busy. When one out of two Americans can’t name the three branches of government, one wonders how many could even name the branch of government that was attacked on January 6, not to mention why it was such a devastating blow to our democracy. 

This Law Day, we are proud to highlight the work of our Task Force on Civic Education, launched last fall. With civic education not being adequately taught in America’s schools, we must help fill the gap by bringing lawyers and judges together to increase students’ and the general public’s understanding of how government works on the federal, state and local levels, and to promote greater civic engagement with government, as the Petition Clause of our very First Amendment guarantees.

Today, the Task Force is presenting a virtual program on “The Bill of Obligations: A Law Day Conversation with Dr. Richard Haass,” which will soon be posted on our website for viewing at any time. And stay tuned for much more from the Task Force, which is just getting started.

To improve civil discourse, to foster greater civic engagement and participation in elections, to combat misinformation and disinformation, to strengthen belief in, and allegiance to, the rule of law, let us resolve to increase all Americans’ understanding of civics and its inseparable tie to our democracy. May democracy ever be born anew.