Education Matters: The fight for civics education

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

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.

“Television has made big things small and small things big,” Dreyfuss added.

Pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz, also speaking in San Diego, said he was more concerned about the Internet than television, citing a number of examples of incendiary speech and ad hominem attacks by critics who hide behind the anonymity of the Web.

“I’m not calling for censorship. I’m calling for a common-sense use of dialogue,” said Luntz. He argued for better communication. “If you teach students how to listen, that will lead to better citizenship.”

Although the primary mission of The Dreyfuss Initiative is to advance civics education, the conversation on Jan. 17 included the need for public debate to be respectful, intelligent and rational.

Civil debate, panelists agreed, has evaporated as partisan political banter has grown increasingly shrill.

Luntz argued that education on civility starts in the home. “It’s what we do in the house,” he said. “It’s how we treat our friends. It starts early in life.”

To prepare our children to be leaders who will respect and honor our country’s origins and unique place in the history of civilization, we have a duty to teach them not just the facts of history but also the value of reason, logic, clarity of thought, critical analysis, debate and civility, Dreyfuss said.

Panel members in San Diego consisted of Dreyfuss, Luntz, Shenkman and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Bruce Boland. Panelists in Washington, D.C. were Common Cause president Bob Edgar, Wall Street Journal writer John Fund, former Colorado governor and past Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Roy Romer, and The Dreyfuss Initiative’s executive director Scot Faulkner.

Students in poverty

Linked from New York, Diane Ravitch said children need to learn about the creation of our democracy “so they can appreciate the long and difficult struggle.” She said schools today devote “so little time for the history of government and civics,” blaming much of this on the No Child Left Behind Act and its “emphasis on basic skills only.”

Many agree that criticism of George W. Bush’s NCLB is justified, with its penalties for lack of improvements on standardized tests that mostly define academic success as excellence in math, reading and writing exclusively.

Romer said that 20 to 25 other developed nations “do a better job educationally and we can learn from them.”

“The link between spending and better education isn’t so clear,” Fund said, noting that America is spending more on education than ever before, “even after accounting for inflation.” He said things can be done “that don’t involve money but can improve educational outcomes.”

Ravitch said if we stumble, it’s because we have so many children — 20 percent, she said — living in poverty. “That will have an impact on student achievement.” Calling that number a disgrace, she said, “More equality will lead to more brotherhood and more of a sense of ‘we’ and not ‘me.’”

Few would disagree with the importance of civics in public schools. Educators and legislators will nod in agreement and wring their hands and say that it’s a crying shame.

But they will then ask how they are to infuse K-12 curriculum with a greater focus on civics when districts are squeezed for money and state and federal governments don’t recognize civics-related subjects as important (an ironic twist, that those involved in government don’t acknowledge the value of their own systems.)

In an e-mail to Dreyfuss, I asked how public schools are to accomplish what he wants, given the funding crisis and the constraints and demands of laws like NCLB.

“For a subject that has gone unmentioned in the public awareness, simply talking about it isn't a bad start,” Dreyfuss wrote back. “But I would answer your specific question by saying, ‘I don’t know’ without a shred of guilt. That is the job of creative teachers, writers, supers, students – once they acknowledge the importance of Civics Untaught …”

Dreyfuss said that lack of money is not a reasonable excuse. He suggested that educators who understand the importance of civics can find ways to make the subject accessible and exciting, engage students and make parents demand it.

“We are the richest country in the history of the world, and can afford to do anything we wish, if we wish it,” he said in his email. “The trick is to make the powers that be share our wish …”

The Dreyfuss Initiative calls America’s guarantee of freedom for all “the most important political message in the history of civilization.”

It’s critical that America’s youth understand how our ancestors came here to escape persecution and live in a land of liberty and justice.

“They came here for safe haven and a second chance,” Dreyfuss said.

In his e-mail to me, Dreyfuss bemoaned our society’s addiction to instant gratification. “If I told you that bringing civics back would take a decade or more, most people would throw up their hands and say, ‘forget it.’ But it will take a decade, and you can’t say, ‘forget it.’ You have to keep plugging away, not be listened to, for years, until they get it.”

The creation of our country’s remarkable form of government was a seminal event in the history of humankind. In an age when citizens are gradually becoming disenchanted with the rigidity of public education’s narrow curriculum, Dreyfuss’s cause is starting to resonate with parents who recognize the immense value of lessons that go well beyond the test scores.

“The country doesn’t happen by itself,” The Dreyfuss Initiative states. “It takes patience, respect, and creativity. We’ve abandoned that for too long, and it’s time to get serious about learning to understand and maintain this nation, or it will continue this inescapable decay. …

“We are a rare light in an overwhelming darkness of cruelty and oppression. The only ones who can beat us, is us. The only ones who can teach us, is us.”

To support The Dreyfuss Initiative or learn more about it, see Marsha Sutton can be reached at




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