Revving up students' civic values

Struck by the responses of some teenagers to the Sept. 11 attacks, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has developed a program to help schoolchildren better understand the principles of the Constitution, the rule of law, and other values of a democratic society.

Justice Kennedy and first lady Laura Bush were to visit a Washington, D.C., high school yesterday to begin what Kennedy and the American Bar Association (ABA) envision as a broad give-and-take among students, parents, lawyers, and judges.

Called "Dialogue on Freedom," the program will consist of discussions at high schools around the country, led by local lawyers and judges. Tentative sites include New York, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Detroit.

The conversations will focus on whether American values "can be seen as offering hope, not a threat, to the rest of the world," according to the ABA.

Students will also be asked to respond to a hypothetical scenario, drafted by Kennedy, in which they are marooned in a poor country hostile to the United States. The country is called "Quest," but its conditions and government resemble many Middle Eastern nations. It is also home to a charismatic religious leader who preaches hatred of America.

"You meet a young woman [who] tells you that what is wrong with Quest and many other less-developed countries is the influence of American culture," and that the country "should follow some sort of movement which resists American culture," the scenario reads. "What do you tell her?"

The ABA will also launch a website devoted to materials and guides for schools, children, and parents, and help provide materials to classrooms nationwide.

The civics program represents an unusually public role for a Supreme Court justice - who are rarely seen outside their own courtroom and select speaking engagements.

Kennedy says he got the idea for the program after listening to some interviews of high school students who were reacting to Sept. 11 and seemed to lack a basic grounding in what the United States was all about.

Kennedy proposed the discussion sessions to the ABA last fall, and wrote much of the program material himself. Kennedy is a right-leaning swing voter, who was named to the court by President Reagan in 1988.

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