Richard Dreyfuss creates initiative to teach civics to U.S. students

Posted: May 17, 2011

WHEN I think of Richard Dreyfuss, the first image that pops into my mind is Robert Shaw screaming "Hooper!" as Dreyfuss steers the ship in "Jaws." The most touching Dreyfuss role to me is music teacher Glenn Holland in "Mr. Holland's Opus." But his current role as "celeb citizen," trying to stem the tide of the growing lack of connection that America's students have to our basic history and civics, is probably his most important.

Dreyfuss is channeling his inner Mr. Holland with a civics twist. He's launched the Dreyfuss Initiative (TheDreyfussInitiative.org), a nonprofit that aims to prepare future generations to be effective and engaged citizens. As he puts it, "To teach our kids how to run our country, before they are called upon to run our country . . . if we don't, someone else will run our country."

To that end, I'm bringing Dreyfuss to the National Constitution Center on June 8 to talk with parents and kids about his program, the resurgence of civics and civics class.

Dreyfuss has his work cut out for him. In the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress test, out just two weeks ago, fewer than half of eighth-graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

The New York Times quotes Sandra Day O'Connor, ex-Supreme Court justice, as saying that the "NAEP results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education."

I think the crisis revolves on the fact that

we've lost the fundamental focus that a major outcome of education should be the development of good citizens. Civics class used to help us reach this goal. But civics has become an endangered subject in many school districts.

The Dreyfuss curriculum not only instructs in the nuts and bolts of government, but also challenges kids to be good citizens. A good citizen votes in every election, even when the choices aren't stellar. A good citizen tries to serve the community, whether by coaching in Little League, checking on neighbors or helping keep the neighborhood clean. A good citizen knows as much about our history as about Eagles' draft picks or if Ashton Kutcher can really replace Charlie Sheen.

I recently brought together Dreyfuss and Newt Gingrich for an interview at the Conservative Political Action Committee. Gingrich said, "I'm a big admirer of what Richard has done . . . His commitment to return civics to the classroom is wonderful."

Dreyfuss said, "I've spoken to 167,000 people and no one thinks that we shouldn't return civics to the classroom. It's the politicians we have to push." Gingrich added, "In the age of iPad, kids can get 12 sides to the issues, not just two."

One of the most interesting aspects of what Dreyfuss is proposing is his take on how civics class and related activities could help meet the increased calls for civility. At a recent appearance at the National Press Club, Dreyfuss offered the observation that civics could help with the manner in which people (and kids) see confrontation. He sees civics as a way to relieve us of violence over political and social issues. I agree.

I particularly like the manner in which Dreyfuss deals with the issue of American exceptionalism.

In a piece he wrote for the New York Daily News, he said, "We allow vague conversations about American exceptionalism, but we are cautious to the point of paralysis when we ask ourselves what it truly means . . . We created a system that complements mankind more thoroughly than any other . . . that the ruler and the ruled could be one thing, that those who came from aristocratic bloodlines were given the same starting point as those who were born to the most common."

I THINK Dreyfuss and I share the view that we don't want kids to see America without its warts, but we want them to see that what's happened here has been positive and unique. We want them to live up to the greatness of the Founding Fathers, the Greatest Generation and every other group along the way. His initiative is bold and creative.

So bring the kids to our event on the evening of June 8 at the Constitution Center. It's free and promises to be fun and inspirational. To register, go to cbsphilly.com/dreyfuss.

Teacher-turned-talk-show-host Dom Giordano is heard on the WPHT (1210-AM) Monday through Friday from nine to noon.

Contact him at askdomg@aol.com.

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