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Raise the Learning Curve

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Stephen Zack. Photo by Michael DeHoog

When Stephen N. Zack talks about the importance of civic education in American schools, he is not just speaking at the elevated level of policy. To him, it’s a personal matter. Zack, who will start a one-year term as ABA president at the close of the association’s 2010 annual meeting, grew up in Cuba, the son of a Cuban mother and a father whose roots were in Russia. Zack’s family fled the Castro regime in 1961, when he was a teenager, and settled in Miami.

“My experience in Cuba is fundamental to my understanding of what’s going on in the United States, and it’s a big reason for my emphasis on civic education,” Zack says. “To me, the loss of democracy is not a theoretical exercise. It really happened.”

To this day, Zack keeps a copy of the Cuban constitution tucked away in his desk at the Miami offices of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, where he is a partner. It’s a reminder, he says, of a lesson he learned as his family fled Cuba. “The Cuban and U.S. constitutions may have been virtually identical on paper,” says Zack. “However, without a thorough understanding and a complete commitment to the spirit those written words represented, neither that Cuban constitution nor any other was enough to protect its citizens and guarantee their rights and liberties.”

Zack will use the “bully pulpit” of the ABA presidency to push civic education for students as one of his key initiatives. Earlier this year, the Board of Governors authorized him to create the Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools. A priority of the 20-member commission will be to plan a three-day civic education academy for teenagers in high schools around the country over the President’s Day weekend in February 2011. Lawyers will be urged to help lead the programs.

During the upcoming annual meeting in San Francisco, the House of Delegates will be asked to address a recommendation by the Standing Committee on Public Education, which asks the ABA to “encourage all lawyers to consider it part of their fundamental responsibility to ensure that all students experience high-quality civic learning, including the study of law, government and history.” The report backing the recommendation describes the ABA’s long history of supporting civic education, which includes the creation in 1983 of the Division for Public Education.


The nation’s schools are crucial to civic education efforts, says Zack, who cites a statement by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that every generation must learn about the U.S. system of government and law because “you don’t inherit that knowledge through the gene pool.”

Studies appear to bolster that conclusion. In October, a report commissioned by the ABA Division for Public Education and the Cam paign for the Civic Mission of Schools Consortium cited survey data indicating that students who receive a strong dose of civic education tend to score significantly higher on a range of 21st century competencies, or skills—including the ability to work well with others and to hold positive attitudes toward working hard and obeying the law—than students who receive minimal civic education. The report is titled Paths to 21st Century Competencies Through Civic Education Classrooms.

Zack’s civic education initiative got an early push from another retired Supreme Court justice: David H. Souter, who addressed the issue at the ABA’s 2009 annual meeting. “We have to take on the job of making American civics education real again,” said Souter, who urged the ABA to play a leading role in that effort. “What more important work can you do?” he asked.

Endorsing Souter’s call to the legal profession, Zack says, “We can’t wait for others to do it.”

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