It’s hard to take issue with someone who is passionate about the teaching of civics and American history in our classrooms. Apparently, actor-turned activist, Richard Dreyfuss even took a few years away from his acting career to study at Oxford in preparation for his non-profit campaign. Dreyfuss is working on a video series that pulls together lectures from various scholars on civics and government as well as our responsibilities as citizens. To promote this campaign Dreyfuss has hit the talk show circuit and has recently been interviewed by the likes of Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee.
Let me say again that I have nothing but the highest respect for this man’s commitment, but there are a few things that I am having difficulty with. First, Dreyfuss seems to be driven by something akin to a savior complex. You can see this in the videos news articles:
In May 2006, Dreyfuss had lunch with an old friend, Bob Tankard, an all-island school committee member and former school principal. “We’ve known each other for more than 20 years,” says Tankard. “We always talked about changing the world. Years ago I told Richard that he should give up acting and go into education or politics, but he said he needed to pay the bills.” Over lunch the two men caught up on each other’s lives and discussed modern democracy. They agreed that the role of civics had been forgotten and that schools needed to reinstate a civics curriculum from kindergarten through high school. “That’s when Richard reminded me that I had urged him to change professions,” Tankard says. “He told me he was ready to make the leap.”
I have no doubt that Dreyfuss has been warmly welcomed by the teaching community, but do we really need him to promote civics education in our schools? Do we need to be saved by Dreyfuss and his video series? And if we do, from what exactly? I can’t help but think that we’ve returned to the old argument that this generation of students is fundamentally different from previous generations. Supposedly, they know and care less than their parents and far less than their grandparents about government and history. Something along these lines is implied in Dreyfuss’s justification for a renewed civics education. At times he sounds like one of these conservative broken records who laments on the loss of civil discourse or a point in American history that was pre-partisan – a golden age of American democracy.
The notion that this generation of students knows less than their elders or that the state of history education has been in free fall for the last few decades is absolute nonsense. Contrary to Dreyfuss, our politicians have rarely, if ever, risen above political partisanship and I suspect that our citizenry is just as gullible and ignorant as in any other time in the past. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to send these people back in time to the 1790s for that heavy dose of civil discourse that they so dearly crave? Until then, I recommend that Dreyfuss read Joanne Freeman’s Affiars of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2002). Perhaps Dreyfuss has played one too many sleazy politican or perhaps he has spent too many hours watching MSNBC, FOX, etc., which masquerade as serious news channels that pretend to engage in civil discourse. Actually, I don’t even think they pretend.
Dreyfuss is right about one thing. We do need to teach our students how to think critically and ecourage them to become what I prefer to call healthy skeptics. We want our students to think through complex questions not simply as Republicans or Democrats or as participants in some reality show, but as “thinking beings.” I’ve always thought that my most important responsibility is to teach my students to think – the content is secondary. Let’s face it, most of my students will forget much of what they are taught, but they can use the analytical skills throughout their lives.
So, welcome aboard Mr. Dreyfuss. You’ve put your finger on one of the fundamental challenges facing history/civics teachers. Now take a seat, breathe, and notice that we’ve been at this for a long time now. Best of luck to you.