Richard Dreyfuss’s Opus

The other day I thought about Richard Dreyfuss and wondered what he’s been up to since his visit to my school last year.  You may remember that I was less than impressed with his method of engaging students as well as his overall message [and here].  Well, it looks like he finally has a website up, but if you take some time to explore its contents you will notice that it is void of any curricular materials or much of anything at all to assist teachers and students in the teaching of civics.  From what I can tell Dreyfuss has done little more than continue his whirlwind tour of America’s classrooms where he has impressed upon students the importance of understanding the Constitution and the importance of rational debate.  Who would disagree with that?

This past week Dreyfuss was honored with the 2010 Empire State Archives and History Award.  I don’t know anything about this award, but it seems to me that this is a sign of what’s wrong with our society and education.  As much as I applaud Dreyfuss for bringing attention to this issue there are people who work day after day in the trenches teaching this material.  Organizations promoting the teaching of civics are a dime a dozen and there are already more than enough curricular materials for the classroom. Can someone please tell me what Mr. Dreyfuss has done to deserve an award?  We give these people awards as a quick fix rather than taking the time to acknowledge the deeper problems within our education system.

In the meantime may I suggest that Mr. Dreyfuss find a more appropriate outfit to wear in the classroom.  Some of us consider ourselves to be professionals when we walk into our classrooms.

Hey! Richard Dreyfuss! Leave Them Kids Alone!

doc4b0537e4016b2999985969I know, I know, I know…you don’t want to hear any more about Richard Dreyfuss.  [see here and here]  Well, this will probably be it.

There seems to be a generational divide regarding Dreyfuss’s speeches.  While Dreyfuss himself has admitted that he has had difficulty reaching out to high school kids an older generation seems to be lapping up his doomsday scenarios about the future of this nation and the supposed incompetence of our youth.  But isn’t that the way it always is?: “Every generation thinks it;s the end of the world.” [Wilco]  Dreyfuss received a standing ovation earlier this week in Gettysburg after speaking at the annual commemoration of Lincoln’s address.  Geez, what a surprise given the profile of his audience.  I would love to know how many in the audience attended these same exercises when they were in high school?  More to the point, Dreyfuss’s perception of our youth clearly reflects no interaction with the very people that he claims to be so concerned about:

Tell Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to help us create games that make us more thoughtful and able to think things through instead of wasting the computer power that sent us to the moon and back on the blood-splatter of gangster video games.

And there you have it.  Continue reading “Hey! Richard Dreyfuss! Leave Them Kids Alone!”

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.  Continue reading “The Richard Dreyfuss Show”

Do You Want Richard Dreyfuss Teaching Your Kids?

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.