Her hair is snowy white. She leans heavily on a cane and calls herself "just an unemployed cowgirl." But this self-deprecating ex-cowgirl is retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court, and she remains passionate about the nation she served.
Eager to pass that passion on to future generations, she has become a tireless proponent of civics education and the urgent need to teach students from the earliest possible age about how the government under which they live is organized, how it works and how they can effectively participate in it.
To that end she co-chairs the national advisory committee for Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. She was in Sacramento last week to participate in the Civic Learning California Summit, a program aimed at encouraging educational leaders to expand civics education in our state.
O'Connor calls the current woeful state of civics education in America "a crisis." Speaking to an audience of students, educators, judges and elected officials in Sacramento on Thursday, the justice bemoaned the most recent national civics and history assessment in which fewer than half of eighth-graders surveyed were able to explain the purpose of the Bill of Rights.
"Why, the answer is right there in the title," O'Connor fumed in dismay.
She says her personal interest in civics education was piqued when she was still on the U.S. Supreme Court and saw more and more laws enacted in Congress and in state legislatures to try to punish judges.
A 2006 South Dakota ballot measure, "J.A.I.L. 4 Judges," alarmed her.
"They were so mad at judges in that state," O'Connor said, "that they thought that if you took a case to court and you lost, then the parties to the case ought to be able to sue the judge and send them to jail for the fact that you lost. I mean, it was that crazy. And I just thought, good heavens! We better pay attention to this and see if we can't educate America on the rule of law, and that's what got me started."
The civics education she's pushing is not your grandmother's civics, the same kind of civics O'Connor says she found so boring while attending high school in El Paso, Texas, in the 1940s. O'Connor has teamed up with high-tech wizards to produce iCivics.org, an interactive computer game in which players get to take on roles as legislators, mayors, judges, voters, community organizers and even the president. The game guides students through a series of questions and challenges that teach them about the fundamentals of the government institutions that guide the country, and their rights, privileges and responsibilities under the democracy in which they live.
iCivics is designed to be fun, but its purpose is deadly serious. For O'Connor, without good, comprehensive civics education, our democratic system of government is at risk.
"At the end of the day your country disintegrates. Certainly, its governance does if the citizens don't understand it and don't participate. You just lose the inner strength of it.
"It's like a human being. If you don't eat for a long time you get weak. You don't continue. And if your country doesn't nourish itself by educating its citizens in how the government works and if they are no longer part of it, you just dissolve, and we can't have that happen."
Justice O'Connor adamantly refuses to talk about cases pending before the high court where she once sat.
"I don't want to get into enunciating anything that has implications for the existing court . I don't think it's appropriate for a former justice to sit around and say the court should do A, B, C or D."
As for her own legacy, what she thinks she will be remembered for, O'Connor again demurred. "I'm not the judge of that. I'll leave that to history, to posterity."
Then she paused and said "I think it opened doors for women. The appointment of a woman, finally, to the court had the effect of opening many doors for women, not only in this country but beyond our borders, in other nations as well. It made a difference."
And Sandra Day O'Connor continues to make a difference.
TEACHING AND LEARNING CIVICS EDUCATION
For more information about iCivics, the interactive computer game that guides students through a series of questions and challenges that teach them about the fundamentals of government, go to www.icivics.org
More information about the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, can be found at www.civicmissionofschools.org