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Division for Media Relations and Communication Services - American Bar Association


by Robert E. Hirshon
President, American Bar Association

You're an American teenager flying off on to an exotic vacation. But your plane has engine trouble and you're forced to land in the country of Quest - a place where the average worker makes only $2 a day, where the political leadership is corrupt, and where anti-democratic sentiment is gathering strength. The people you meet challenge your beliefs. They blame America for their difficulties, and believe that authoritarian rule is their best hope. What can you say to them?

In the wake of September 11, we have all come to realize how frequently American values are misunderstood, and how strong the challenges to them are. The world may have embraced many aspects of our culture, but Big Macs and Coke are not enough to nourish democratic values. In order for our democracy to continue to thrive, all of us - but particularly the next generation of Americans - must be able to speak up for our fundamental principles.

This Law Day, May 1, in classrooms across America, students are learning to do that as part of a new American Bar Association initiative. The program, "Dialogue on Freedom," brings students and lawyers together for challenging discussions designed to spark a better understanding of the basic principles of democracy. The program was conceived by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who also developed the Quest scenario for use in the program.

The program focuses not on specific aspects of American law or history, but on the first principles that unite us as a people. Discussions center on three specific topics, designed to explore democracy's strengths and challenges. "American Identities and Constitutional Values" explores what it means to be an American in a diverse and pluralistic country. "Individual Freedoms, Democratic Participation, and Other Cultures" focuses on individual rights and responsibilities, and examines whether the principles of individual liberty are compatible with the values of other nations. "American Civic Values in a Global Age" looks beyond U.S. borders to the image of America in the wider world.

The ABA has prepared resource materials, including "dialogue starters" and bibliographies, for each of the topics, and they are available on a new Web site ( dedicated to the initiative. In addition to the resource materials themselves, the Web site includes links to other online resources and special pages for school audiences and the parents of young children. Additionally, the ABA is developing a broadcast-quality videotape program featuring student participating in the program. The videotape will be available for use by other groups, and for translation for use in other countries.

The ABA - as the voice of America's legal profession - has a special stake in this effort, particularly as we recognize Law Day and the importance of the rule of law in this country. As lawyers, we have been trained to honor the rule of law, and we are uniquely prepared to advocate and argue for our nation's way of life. We recognize that democratic values are not innate; they must be instilled in each new generation. By going into classrooms, we hope to offer students new insights into our fundamental values - and to respond to the challenge of defending our freedom.