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Citizen Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Citizen Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss stood before a packed community meeting in Martha's Vineyard last week and asked, "Where do we offer young people the chance to fall in love with America?" He insisted that he was "not speaking for Democrats, Republicans or anything else. [But] as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about." He then led a discussion on the importance of reviving civics education in our nation's public schools.

The man who once obsessively built clay models of a form that couldn't escape his mind, who warned locals on this same island of a killer shark roaming the waters offshore, who devoted himself to teaching music at the expense of his relationship with his hearing-impaired son... Those fictitious events were part of Dreyfuss's other life as an actor. But it is Citizen Dreyfuss who spoke at the community meeting--living what he calls "the second half of my life."

From the age of 12, Dreyfuss has wanted to do three things: be an actor, be a movie star, and be in politics. He says that four years ago, after he was fired from the London production of The Producers, he decided it was time to retire and do the third thing.

"I've been acting since I'm 12," he says. "I've been famous since I'm 25.... So, I just got really tired of it. After forty years, there are other things you love and want to spend time with.... I decided that instead of waiting to be rich enough to do whatever you want to do, you'll just do whatever you want to do and scramble around for the money."

What he wanted to do was enroll at Oxford University to study democracy. And he did. "I came there with a notion that I had tried to sell to Coca-Cola about ten years previously," he says. "That was to create a two-hour show for kids. The idea was the story of democracy as a biography like a Dickensian tale. Think of David Copperfield as Democracy, and it becomes immediately a more interesting story: born under perilous circumstances, raised without any love and affection--fragile childhood. Held in contempt, dismissed... surprising allies and surprising opponents. And then, out of nowhere almost, he prevails. And he not only prevails he becomes the system of choice--the most popular in England. But he carries within himself the seeds of his own destruction because that's what he sought. And I think that that could be a legitimate two-hour movie for TV, and never stray from the truth. And hook people on that story, and make them want to go even further."

But Dreyfuss found himself drifting towards political writers at Oxford and wanting to be in the classroom. And he was deeply distressed about the state of America's democracy.

"There is no serious place to discuss serious issues any more and that's a serious problem," he argues. "How do you discuss serious issues without the melodrama and all that stuff? Kids grow up thinking that shouting is the only way to discuss politics--that rumination and thinking things through is for sissies."

Dreyfuss says that the Framers felt that the people could be relied upon to maintain our system--they could be sovereign. But being sovereign required a thoughtful, intelligent, active citizenry. Dreyfuss believes that today we know so little about our system; even worse, we are taught so little about how to preserve and strengthen it. As he said in an interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, "If the people are sovereign, they are the monarch. Who tutors the monarch? Who trains and teaches the people to be sovereign?" Dreyfuss says that he became convinced "America was going to go by way of all the other leading nations which slipped up, kept hold of its documents which lost any meaning, and simply faded away...."

But at some point during his time at Oxford Dreyfuss found reason for hope. "I realized that all of the institutions are there," he says. "And it just takes the revivification of one or two of these places and the rest will follow." His original idea for the TV show began to morph into a civics curriculum--which he says is the teaching of the tools that are necessary to maintain our system of government--"the internal combustion engine and not the Porsche and not the Chevy." He says that these tools are "pre-partisan," and he defines them as reason, logic, clarity of thought, dissent, debate, and civility. Dreyfuss says that civility was the one "I thought I had to bury because I knew it was the biggest buzzword." But civility, he insists, is "the oxygen that democracy requires. Democracy is our willingness to share political space with those with whom we disagree. We need to share it with respect--letting [people] finish their sentences, not patronizing them, thinking things through, getting to know people. Otherwise we strangle on incivility."

Last summer, Dreyfuss and his longtime friend and Martha's Vineyard educator, Robert Tankard, spoke with the island's Superintendent, James Weiss, about teaching a new civics curriculum. They wanted parents, teachers, students, historians, and others to collaborate on it, use the Martha's Vineyard school system as a laboratory, and then offer it as a model for a national civics revival. Weiss said that if they could generate interest in the local community he would implement the classes.

"I never heard such a great offer in my life," Dreyfuss says. "It's the difference between walking and talking." And that's how Citizen Dreyfuss found himself talking civics with the community last week.

Dreyfuss spoke about the risk of doing nothing. Without doing the rigorous work, the training, and learning "the tools of democracy, we leave the running of our system to happenstance and luck. We can kiss it goodbye in the lives of my children and yours."

Dreyfuss found a receptive crowd. On the importance of civility an elderly man said, "You were born with two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth. Use them in those proportions." Others complained of people "making up facts in order to win arguments." Or "bashing others to score political points instead of working to solve problems." They felt that civics education needed to start younger so that by the time people finished high school they were practicing citizenship rather than learning it. Historian Gordon Wood told the group, "We are a nation of immigrants.... What holds us together? It can't be Starbucks and McDonald's. That's why we go back to the Founders--equality, liberty, self-government.... If younger people don't know [this foundation], they will lose any sense of collectivity, identity as Americans." Sociologist James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, also participated in the meeting and called the teaching of civics "one leg of many in our culture to revive and renew us." A retired principal spoke of the obstacles created by No Child Left Behind--the forced focus on reading and math, and the consequent cuts to music, arts and other programs. "To be successful, we need to think of the whole child again," he said.

There was another target on the mind of Dreyfuss and many of the citizens at the meeting: the media, and especially television. (Dreyfuss calls television "possibly the worst thing that ever happened to us. I think it shortened our brains. I think it created road rage. I think it killed rumination. I think it allows us to think that we are discussing serious public issues when we're not. I think that it has become the place of serious public discussion of issues but it isn't. And it just passes for that.") He said that television is where we go for news information. It delivers information through image (rather than text) instantaneously, leaving no time for rumination. He cited 9/11 coverage as an example--the instantaneous images of the Twin Towers replayed over and over again--leaving room for nothing other than feelings of "grief and revenge." Dreyfuss believes television has caused us to reinterpret what makes a good politician (the image being more important than the text). He called people in the industry "like addicts--denying that a problem exists." Meanwhile, he says, we accept the medium as offering the same level of reflection and insight as reading and rumination. There was general agreement that we have lost our way in teaching young people to be critical thinkers and sort through the information industry.

As the meeting ended, Dreyfuss asked: "Are you in favor of teaching civics in American public schools?" He called for the nays and there was silence. Dreyfuss allowed it to linger. Finally, he asked for the yeas, and hundreds of people responded with enthusiasm. The contrast was striking, and Dreyfuss had clearly drawn on his skillful sense of timing to orchestrate the moment. Dreyfuss and Tankard had achieved their objective of demonstrating strong public support. Participants were invited to attend a follow-up session at a local high school the next day where the focus would shift to developing a pilot program.

After the meeting Superintendent Weiss said that there is an eighteen-month window of opportunity to revamp civics education on the island. The standardized testing in social studies for the state will be decided during that time period and curricula will be revised. He said that eighteen months was "just enough time" to succeed.

The next morning, Dreyfuss was pleased with the conference but also tired and frustrated as he reflected on the contributing factors that he perceives as threatening our system of government--a system he undeniably loves and is passionate about. He railed at a media that fails to demand the truth on the gravest matters of our time ("You want someone to say [to the President], 'Excuse me, you're full of shit, and answer the question.' And they don't do that"). He decried the infighting of the Democratic party ("Democrats eat their young") and the failure of the left to articulate a compelling case that people can rally around. He denounced Republicans for not being straight with people about what they stand for and why. He said that America has broken the hearts of young people and caused cynicism to be rampant among them. Dreyfuss believes that civics--despite what he calls its boring reputation--is the way young people can begin to have "a love affair with America."

Whether or not one agrees with Dreyfuss's critique of political culture, one thing is clear: He's not only talking the talk, he's also walking the walk--and demonstrating the kind of committed citizenship he espouses. How many Oscar-winners walk away from their profession to develop curricula ("The only time you'll ever see me in a movie or anything like that is when you know they paid me a billion dollars....")? To Dreyfuss, "representative democracy is as thrilling as anything Charles Dickens wrote and Alfred Hitchcock ever shot." It is both a thriller and a romance, and offers a narrative with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning and the middle are history--and to Dreyfuss, the still open-ending begs this question: "What country do we want to hand to our kids?"

With reporting from Martha's Vineyard by Gregory Kaufmann, a Washington, DC-based journalist and screenwriter.

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