Actor Richard Dreyfuss, Warning of Decline of America, Calls for Renewed Civics Education

November 17, 2009

November 17, 2009 — Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss is well known for starring in such movies as "Jaws," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

Less known are his passion and advocacy for the importance of passing on to each new generation of Americans an understanding, appreciation and love of their nation's core values and founding ideals.

The American system requires the involvement of intelligent people in citizenship and governance, Dreyfuss said Monday at the University of Virginia. "Everyone in the world knows that America is a miracle – except Americans, because we don't teach it anymore," he said.

During his two-day visit, arranged by U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs, Dreyfuss gave two talks on Monday, at the Miller Center and in the auditorium of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library. On Tuesday, he spoke at St. Anne's-Belfield School.

Dreyfuss' zeal and conviction were palpable as he discussed the importance of teaching civics in a nation bound together only by ideas, rather than ancestry, religion or ethnicity.

"America is the greatest answer to a question that has been asked for 13,000 years," he said. "The question is 'How can people live together with some sense of mobility and freedom and intellectual freedom and opportunity?' So far, we are the best answer by leagues."

Just as people require extensive training to be a driver, pilot, doctor or lawyer, Dreyfuss said, they require education in citizenship to develop the "basic pre-partisan tools of politics" in order to be responsible sovereigns of a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," as Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg address.

What about the challenge, asked an audience member, of deciding as a society on how exactly to teach civics, the meaning of the Constitution and America's core values?

Dreyfuss explained that he had recently finished four years of study (both on and off campus) at Oxford University in England to work on developing a curriculum for civics. He did not say whether he had succeeded, but he is crafting a statement demanding that civics be taught with rigor in schools, a statement that people will be able to support by adding their names.

An audience member suggested that Dreyfuss check out the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr., University Professor Emeritus of Education and Humanities and author of "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know." That curriculum, for kindergarten through eighth grade, includes well-defined civics and U.S. history content. George Gilliam, assistant director of public programs at the Miller Center, noted that Dreyfuss would meet Hirsch during his two-day visit.

At times during his talk, Dreyfuss was evocative of a prophet frustrated with the heedlessness of his people, most notably when he stressed the urgency of this crisis of uninformed citizenry. He suggested that America's decline, like Rome's, would be a gradual process of rot from within rather than a turning-point event, but could happen within the lifetimes of our grandchildren.

He cited a number of reasons for decline in citizenship, engagement and love of country, things he said were instilled in him by one particular grade-school teacher, and by watching movies from the 1930s through the 1950s by directors such as Frank Capra, John Ford, Henry Hathaway and the Warner brothers – movies that "made you love America."

Since the 1970s, America has been battered by cynicism, Dreyfuss said. Led by Washington's "Beltway culture" and "the sophisticates of glossy magazines like Vanity Fair," this cynicism holds that nothing in public life is real and sincere and that everyone uses hollow talking points to obscure self-serving motives.

The billions spent on political advertising have subverted and skewed public political debate, he charged. Dreyfuss advocated a constitutional amendment establishing a firewall between money, politics and TV, and argued that there is nothing un-American or unconstitutional about putting a complete hold on political advertising on TV.

He lamented the corporate takeover of American media, which compromises the independence of journalists. TV news, in particular, "makes big things small, and small things big," he said.

Good citizenship isn't just voting, he said. The public must demand that political parties, which he compared to "a choice of two brothels," be more honest and responsive to their own core principles.

But there is one root cause of all these factors contributing to a decline in citizenship, Dreyfuss said, once again sounding prophetic: "The real villain here, about all of this, is you and me. We have lost our ability to sustain outrage."

— By Brevy Cannon