The Richard Dreyfuss Show

2618108A few months ago I commented on actor Richard Drefyuss’s new crusade of working to introduce civics back into the high school curriculum.  I did not know at that time that he would be speaking at my school.  Well, today was the big day and I thought I might share a few observations.  Let me begin by applauding Dreyfuss for his sincere interest in this issue.  I support anyone who can help to shed light on those areas that need improvement in the education of young Americans.  And unlike some who criticize Hollywood types for their social activism I welcome it.  If it takes a high profile name to draw attention to some issue than so be it.  Of course, it is incumbent on that individual to demonstrate competence in the area in question.  Unfortunately, Dreyfuss falls far short of this mark.

Our school organized his visit around a panel discussion that included six students, all of whom had prepared questions for Dreyfuss.  From the beginning Dreyfuss had difficulty staying on message and he alienated much of his audience when he asked for a volunteer to cite the Bill of Rights.  That seemed to be sufficient reason to pound home his broader theme which is that the United States is doomed.  There was actually very little talk of civics; rather he touched on what he sees as a lack of civil discourse.  Well, who would disagree with that?  However, if you are going to offer such a critique you must be the one to set the example.  Again, he fell short.  Student questions were not addressed in any substantive manner.  In fact, our students should be praised for the way they managed to steer Dreyfuss back to the question at hand or to another issue. 

More disturbing was Dreyfuss’s mangling of basic historical facts.  He suggested that during the Jim Crow Era an average of 90 African Americans were lynched each month.  At one point he even described a WWII Congressional of Medal Honor winner as a “suicide bomber.”  [I believe his name was Kelley and he supposedly flew his plane into a Japanese warship at the beginning of WWII.  While I do not know the details of the case I think it is safe to assume that he was not a suicide bomber.]

As I stated in that earlier post, I have no doubt that Dreyfuss is passionate about this issue, but that is far from enough.  You have to have a plan to bring your audience to the place desired.  In short, you need to come equipped with an argument.  Vague thoughts about a lack of civility and a dire outlook for the future of this nation is simply insufficient.  In fact, at one point Dreyfuss wondered why he hasn’t been more successful in convincing his audiences of the desperate need for a renewed look at civics.  I now understand why.

Some suggestions for Dreyfuss:

1. Know your audience.  Most high school kids have no clue who you are.  This is important since the only reason your are being invited to schools is because of your name and career.  However, once you are on stage you need to reach out to the younger generation in a way that reflects that you understand their world.  For example, don’t simply dismiss the Internet with the back of your hand, engage them in how it can be a tool for positive dialog as well as the worst kind of misinformation.  As I always say, SHOW, DON’T TELL.

2. Students do not respond well to fear.  Instead of trying to motivate with scare tactics try presenting a picture of the kind of society that you envision.  First, you need to demonstrate it, but perhaps you are not the answer.  Consider some other type of presentation that may be able to more effectively convey the importance that you attach to civics education.  In short, the best way to drive home your message is to teach civics.  There was very little teaching done today.

3. Your website needs some serious work.  Your website is your voice since most of the nation will not get to see you in person.  Offer resources for teachers as well as a forum for individuals to share their ideas.  The possibilities are endless.

4. Finally, a little humility wouldn’t hurt.  To be honest, you haven’t provided any real solutions nor have you paid your dues.  What you’ve done is simply highlighted a problem and anyone can do that.  Keep in mind that when you enter a school you are interacting with people who not only know this, but are working day to day to combat it.  And many teachers around the country are doing this with very few resources and in difficult conditions.

26 comments… add one

  • Brett Nov 17, 2009

    At one point he even described a WWII Congressional of Medal Honor winner as a “suicide bomber.” [I believe his name was Kelley and he supposedly flew his plane into a Japanese warship at the beginning of WWII. While I do not know the details of the case I think it is safe to assume that he was not a suicide bomber.]

    Sounds like Captain Colin P. Kelly Jr:

    http://www.floridamemory.com/FloridaHighlights/

    Except that the crashing into a Japanese warship bit never actually happened, contrary to popular legend.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009

      That's it. Thanks for the link. Even worse that it never happened.

      • toby Nov 20, 2009

        I read it that it was rumour and the media who inflated the claims, not the “powers that be”. Kelley got a DSM for remaining at the controls of a burning plane to make sure his crew bailed out safely. Sounds deserving enough of a medal to me.

        Its not Kelley's fault that some idiot got his story fucked up, and insulted the memory of a brave man sixty years or so later.

    • David Haasl Nov 18, 2009

      Colin Kelly got the Medal of Honor for sinking a Japanese battleship. But as was pointed out in earlier comments, he did not. But as we were still doing badly in the war and we needed heroes, the “powers that be” took the inflated claims at face value and voila, an American hero!

  • hjs Nov 17, 2009

    Thanks for confirming much of what I already suspected of Richard Dreyfus.

  • Guest Nov 17, 2009

    Colin Kelly was the first US pilot hero of WW2. After dropping his bombs (his three planes got a near miss on the cruiser Natori and a hit on the minesweeper W-19), he was flying for home when some Zero's found him. After the plane was shot down, he held his plane steady and level for some of the crew to bail out (the plane exploded in midair before all of them got away- 6 survived).

    There were stories afterwards that he dived his plane into a Japanese battleship, but he did not.

  • Dorene Fisher Nov 17, 2009

    Well said! Bravo, bravo, bravo! If anything, Mr. Dreyfuss alienated the very people he hoped to enlist. Very disappointing outcome to a much anticipated visit.

  • Mannie Gentile Nov 17, 2009

    Like the man who gave us “What about Bob?” knows what's good for America.

    Kevin, your comments and observations are in the spirit of what is best about teaching.

    • hjs Nov 19, 2009

      Whoa there, hoss. “What About Bob” is a GREAT flick. “Dr. Marvin! Look at me! I'm sailing! I sail! I'm a sailor!”

  • Chris L. Robinson Nov 17, 2009

    Wow. I understand your frustration about the terrible misinformation. Sounds like a painful talk. But what do you mean he hasn’t paid his dues?

    What dues are there to pay? He has a responsibility to get his facts straight. But does he have to have fought in a war (or at least written a book about one) before he can presume to discuss politics or history or government?

    He shouldn’t have to wait until he gets a Ph.D before he can start passing bad information.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2009

      I don't have a Ph.D, so why would I demand that of Dreyfuss as a precondition for addressing a student body? My point is very simple. You can't walk into a room full of students and teachers and expect us to pay attention if it is clear that you have not put the time into crafting your message and presentation. More to the point, Dreyfuss doesn't understand the challenges facing students and teachers in public schools today. He needs to do his homework.

  • Michael Lynch Nov 17, 2009

    Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all.

    • Ken Noe Nov 18, 2009

      I blame Mary Ellen Moffat. She broke his heart.

  • Dr. No Nov 17, 2009

    He seemed rather strident to be preaching about civility in public discourse. Did anyone else notice the irony?

  • Dr. No Nov 18, 2009

    Dreyfuss alluded to an Alice in Wonderland surrealism that pervaded contemporary political discourse, but yesterday I felt like a guest at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, for passion replaced logic, rudeness replaced civility, and opacity replaced clarity. I feel that unintentionally (and ironically) his presentation might have alienated students rather than brought them to a realization of his dire warnings.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2009

      That was the ultimate irony. He handled the students' questions in the same way that politicians do during debate. What I find strange is that no one seems to have picked up on the complete lack of focus and competence elsewhere. My guess is that his schedule is full for the near future. How can that be?

      • Dr. No Nov 18, 2009

        He's a celebrity and thus has the kind of false status our culture confers on celebrities.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2009

          Yes, but the problem is that very few people in the audience viewed him as a celebrity. I was actually excited to see the man from Jaws, Close Encounters, etc., but by the end all I could see was a disgruntled old man.

  • msimons Nov 18, 2009

    If your school paid him you should ask for a refund.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 18, 2009

      Don't you think that would be kind of silly? Luckily, it was paid for by an anonymous donor.

      • msimons Nov 18, 2009

        No for you said yourself he was to present one thing and instead of he presented another and that he failed to be historically accurate. You did not get what you paid for so I would want a refund.

  • Michaela Nov 18, 2009

    First, what Mr. Dreyfuss showed is that even public and private education institutions use sources to educate that they either do not check carefully enough or that they consider experts in the TV-news style: as long as somebody has brain synapse activity, they are a valid source of information, be it S. Palin or R. Dreyfuss. Secondly, as my colleague pointed out imagine some of the stars from ER coming to a medical facility and talking about the state of health care in emergency rooms with emphasis on cardiac events?? Mr. Dreyfuss is a celebrity and has an enormous power to use his name to support a good cause. Egotistically he chose to make the cause more about him than about the actual problem. Based on the reports I got from other schools in the area that had to endure his rants it must have felt like hearing any John Doe complaining about something without much educating himself about the actual issue…only Mr. Dreyfuss made it to the stage.

    Having more than a decade of experience in education and having an MA in education Mr. Dreyfuss would not have made it through a pedagogy course. Lastly, I am so bored by people outside of education to tell everybody and his neighbor how it is done best. Teach at least one year in school…then you may have enough information to suggest improvements. Having a kid in school does not make you an expert about education, but it does make you an expert what's right for your kid.

  • Michaela Nov 18, 2009

    PS: Mr. Dreyfuss sent his children to private school. Maybe if he had dared the “big bad wolf” of public school he would have at least gained some personal experience.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

    I wanted to take a moment to clarify that Richard Dreyfuss wasn't paid to speak at St. Anne's – Belfield School. He was a guest of the Miller Center (they pay only travel and expenses – no honoraria) and spoke at UVa and the high schools gratis.

  • toby Nov 20, 2009

    I read it that it was rumour and the media who inflated the claims, not the “powers that be”. Kelley got a DSM for remaining at the controls of a burning plane to make sure his crew bailed out safely. Sounds deserving enough of a medal to me.

    Its not Kelley's fault that some idiot got his story fucked up, and insulted the memory of a brave man sixty years or so later.

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