Souter, Gregg Call For Renewed Focus on Civics Education

Oct 27, 2015

David Souter doesn't like to talk about his political opinions in public, but he does have plenty of opinions on the importance of understanding the political process.
Credit Jim Cole / AP

If you’d like to understand what a decline in civics education means for the future of the country’s political system, David Souter suggests a sports analogy.

“As somebody said a while back – you know, if you go to a baseball game and you don’t know what the rules of the game are, it’s incomprehensible. If you know something about the three strikes rule, it’s maybe a little bit more comprehensible,” the retired United States Supreme Court justice told an audience at Nashua Community College Monday afternoon. “Well, the same thing goes for government.”

Souter joined former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg for a conversation focused on a cause the two have championed since stepping aside from their respective offices: the importance of teaching people how government works and how to be active participants in the democratic process.

“If we do nothing about it, and we maintain the present level of civic ignorance, there is a serious question as to whether, 50 years from now, we are going to have a recognizable democracy in the United States,” Souter said. “I’m not in the totally pessimistic column – but anybody who can be optimistic about it has got to be out of his mind.”

The pair offered plenty of explanations for the current state of political discourse – which, in their view, is too often driven by polarized talking points instead of thoughtful discussions on issues of substance. At the root of those issues, they argued, is a decades-long erosion of the way students learn about the political process.

While Souter said civics education has been on the decline for decades, it’s been particularly difficult to reverse course in recent decades: The “No Child Left Behind” education reforms of the early 2000s, in his view, are “the biggest stumbling block” because of their emphasis on standardized tests.

“For every hour that is taken away from that kind of teaching that goes into civics, there is a risk for lower test scores,” Souter said.

Gregg repeatedly turned to the role of both social media and the mainstream media in shaping modern politics. While it’s a good thing that digital tools have given more people a voice on political issues, Gregg said, those same tools have produce “unfiltered” environment where it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. 

“Very rarely on the internet do you get thoughtful discussions on complex issues,” Gregg said. “You get shouting.”

Despite their concerns, the pair pointed to New Hampshire as a place that – to some extent – has managed to hold onto such traditions. Its first-in-the-nation presidential primary is especially critical, Gregg said, because it forces candidates to come face-to-face with the voters they are running to represent – and because voters unaligned with a political party are allowed to participate in the primary, which creates a bit of a buffer against primaries that would reward the most extreme candidates in either party.

And while Souter and Gregg conceded that New Hampshire’s traditional town meetings also seem to be experiencing a drop in participation, they said this format is especially valuable in serving as an example of democracy in action.

For all of their discussion about the political system in the big picture, the two statesmen shied away from sounding off directly on this year’s presidential race.

Souter, decidedly apolitical in public because he still occasionally serves as a sitting judge, declined to respond to a local television news reporter who asked for his thoughts on “the Donald Trump effect.” Gregg offered to weigh in, though broadly. He said it’s a good thing if Trump has “energized” people who might have previously abstained from the political process, but that might be coming at a cost.

“I am concerned that he has created discussions in what I would call ‘Duck Dynasty’ one-liners,” Gregg said, referring to a popular reality show. “So that instead of getting substantive discussion on complex issues, we get these one-liners which dismiss an issue immediately and doesn’t get into the substance, the nuance of it.”

The last question of the day came from a student who identified herself as a senior at Milford High School – she wanted to know where Gregg and Souter stood on allowing 17-year-olds to vote in a primary if they were going to be old enough to vote in the forthcoming general election. Both Gregg and Souter said the idea had merit.

“Sounds OK to me,” Souter said. “I’d rather have a 17-year-old voting than a 20-year-old not voting. So if you can get ‘em hooked at 17, boy, I’m all for it.”