By Marsha Sutton
The Dreyfuss Initiative, founded by Encinitas resident and Academy award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, seeks to revive and expand the teaching of civics in our public schools. There’s nothing like some major star power to bring a lot of resources and attention to a worthy cause.
Begun in 2006, The Dreyfuss Initiative is a nonprofit organization focused on the pressing need for young people to increase their understanding of U.S. history, the principles of American democracy, founding documents, the workings of our country’s government, and the importance of civil, rational discourse in a free and democratic society.
“America is a miracle, and only Americans don’t know that anymore, because we don’t teach it,” according to TDI’s mission statement.
Since his organization’s inception, Dreyfuss has been speaking regularly and passionately about the need for more civics awareness in public education.
Americans, Dreyfuss said on Fox in November 2008, are not bound by race, religion, geography or heritage. “We are bound only by ideas,” he said. “And if you don’t teach those ideas, we are not bound.”
On Jan. 17, Dreyfuss hosted “It’s Time for a Talk: The National Conversation on Revitalizing America’s Civic Future.” Two sets of panelists, one in San Diego at the University of San Diego and the other in Washington, D.C., as well as education historian and author Diane Ravitch in New York, were linked through a Webcast, with live broadcast coverage provided by C-SPAN.
At the event, Dreyfuss spoke about the deterioration of civics education in schools and the need for more active engagement of citizenry if we are to preserve our unique democracy.
“We have removed those classes from almost all of our public schools,” he said. In place of understanding and appreciation for the unique freedoms America offers, we now have “common senselessness, apathy and ignorance.”
Dreyfuss said that people who have come to America from other countries — places where oppression, tyranny and abysmal poverty limit access to opportunity and liberty – understand full well what America stands for. They know it represents hope for a better way of life and freedom from repression and persecution. “We have a right and reason to be proud of our country,” he said.
But knowledge of our unique place in history, the wisdom of our founders and rare documents like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is not something children are born with.
“You have to learn it,” Dreyfuss said.
Sadly, the statistics are depressing.
Rick Shenkman, vice-president of the political social networking site Vote iQ, said the majority of Americans don’t know what the three branches of government are and only one in five knows there are 100 U.S. senators.
Shenkman, one of the San Diego panelists, said adults today have had more schooling than in previous generations, but they know less. And most don’t even vote. He suggested that television has dumbed down our democracy with its focus on entertainment and preoccupation with performance rather than substance.
“We’ve become a less serious people because of television,” he said, calling TV “a terrible transmitter of information.” He said reading newspapers is vital to a fully informed citizenry and suggested that teachers give current events quizzes weekly.