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Richard Dreyfuss's New 'Opus': Championing Civics Lessons and the Tools of Democracy

The Oscar-winning actor has found a new calling: citizen.

NOWADAYS WHEN RICHARD DREYFUSS takes the stage, wearing his trademark khaki pants and corduroy jacket with his reading glasses on a string draped around his neck, he is playing a role quite different from the dozens of characters he has taken on during his long acting career. This time he is a citizen exhorting us to help him breathe life into a moribund subject: civics. "Democracy has no value unless you accept it as a process rather than an event," says Dreyfuss. "The Framers felt that the people could be relied on to maintain our democratic system—they could be sovereign. But being sovereign requires a thoughtful, intelligent, active citizenry. Today we know so little about our system. Civics is teaching people how to maintain the system while sharing political power."

For actor Richard Dreyfuss, civics has always been an activity, not a museum piece. He grew up knowing that different points of view can coexist in a democracy without people resorting to shouting matches. He still remembers two FBI agents coming to his home to do a security clearance when he was 14. His father owned a company that made gun shields for the Navy, and his mother was involved in political groups such as Mothers for Peace. "Does this breed discontent in the home?" one of the agents asked the boy. Dreyfuss responded that his father was helping the antiwar effort by making gun shields badly. In a heartbeat, his mother's fingernails were digging into his arm. "The boy is just kidding," the younger agent said.

His Four Ambitions. Humor and storytelling have always been Dreyfuss's forte. Since he was 12, he has had four ambitions—to be an actor, to become a movie star, to go into politics, and to become a history teacher. By the time he was 30, he had won an Oscar for his performance in The Goodbye Girl, making him the youngest actor to win the award at that time. Years later he starred in Mr. Holland's Opus, playing a music teacher. His passionate performance garnered another Academy Award nomination. At 59, Dreyfuss is closing in on the latter two goals, but in unexpected ways.

For the last 4 years Dreyfuss has been on a mission to save democracy from what he calls the forces of evil—apathy, ignorance, and the lack of civility. He went back to school to learn how to teach, spending 2 years as a resident fellow at Oxford, before taking on his new project. "Dreyfuss thinks the public does not know how to think critically or reason or argue," says Jim Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. "He's trying to do something about it."

Ready for Change. It all started in Martha's Vineyard. In 1975 the actor's career took off when he starred as an arrogant shark expert in Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Over the years, he vacationed on the island and maintained close ties with friends there. 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."

Later that summer Tankard introduced Dreyfuss to James Weiss, the island's superintendent of schools. It was a meeting of the minds. "The superintendent told me that if I could ignite the enthusiasm of parents, they would institute a curriculum of civics," Dreyfuss recalls. "Within 20 minutes we decided to hold public forums," adds Tankard. The first was scheduled for December at the Katharine Cornell Theater, one of the oldest public venues on the island, a typical town meeting site. Dreyfuss took up the challenge and recruited well-known educators to meet with local teachers, parents, and students.

 

A Sense of Urgency. Dreyfuss spent the fall of 2006 honing his ideas, drumming up enthusiasm for his project, and on November 16 he appeared on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher to promote his civics initiative. "I don't want civics to simply be an issue," he says. "I want it to be an urgent issue." Maher was atypically silent as the star, looking and sounding decidedly professorial, eloquently laid out his ideas. "Civics to me is the teaching of reason and logic," Dreyfuss told NRTA Live & Learn in a recent phone interview. "And upholding the values of dissent, debate, and civility."

On December 6 Dreyfuss hosted the first public forum in Martha's Vineyard designed to promote civics education. "Where do we offer young people the chance to fall in love with America?" he asked the packed house. "I speak to you as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about. If we don't teach it, we lose this system." Dreyfuss then led a lively discussion on the importance of reviving civics education in our public schools. "I view public schools as a key vehicle for helping people become citizens," Weiss, a former history teacher, told the audience.

For Dreyfuss, active citizenship isn't something that takes place on a faraway stage; it's close to home. Ten years ago when I first interviewed him about his community service, he told me that he grew up in a family where politics and civics were like bread and water. Sunday evenings found the family around the dinner table discussing and debating the issues of the day. His mother taught by example. "For more than 30 years she was a citizen activist," Dreyfuss said. "She was involved in four or five organizations—Another Mother for Peace, the League of Women Voters—and worked at them constantly. She never lectured or gave me a Sunday sermon about politics or morality but included me. I remember paper drives and rubber drives. It was all part of the afternoon."

The World We Leave Our Kids. Dreyfuss has taken the family lessons to heart, especially as he grew into the role of parent himself. "It's a short walk from being part of a community to being a citizen in a democracy," he says. "What world your kids grow up in becomes important to you or you're an idiot." When his own three children, now in their teens and 20s, were small, he put his celebrity and energy into building a strong community. He co-founded L.A. Works, a public-action center that organized community service projects. "L.A. Works was a vehicle for an impulse that already existed," he told me. "Some people have always been dissatisfied with simply writing a check." The organization gave Dreyfuss "a tremendous sense of accomplishment," he said. "I don't believe there is any such thing as an altruistic gesture. I believe you get something back, which is that sense of satisfaction, one of the great highs of all time."

Already then, during the Clinton administration, Dreyfuss was concerned about our political institutions: "We are losing the idea that representative democracy is to be valued," he told me. The solution? "Political activism can make a difference," he said. "But its success is incremental. That's the most difficult part of sustaining a democracy."

Dreyfuss's mother nurtured his sense of activism at home, and he studied civics in school. The same boy who witnessed FBI agents knocking on his door, worries today about American civil liberties. He participated in marches against the Vietnam War and became a conscientious objector, spending 2 years as a clerk at an L.A. County hospital. "I loved my country and wanted to be of service," he says. He's tried to imbue his own children with a love for their country and a reverence for democracy.

Oxford Calls. Ironically, his current civics project was born out of the ashes of an aborted theatrical role. In 2004 Dreyfuss was tapped to play Max Bialystock in the London production of The Producers, but he withdrew before the play opened. As he prepared to move back to the States, he took stock of his life and his career and thought about his goal of going into education or politics. That's when he received an invitation to join St. Antony's College at Oxford as a senior associate member and study democracy.

 

He jumped at the opportunity. As he clarified his ideas and gave a formal lecture on American democracy and the 2004 election, he realized that the tools of citizenship were not being taught in American schools. "We need to give kids the tools necessary to run our government," he says. "They grow up thinking that partisan yelling and rudeness is the appropriate manner to discuss the issues of the day."

Dreyfuss has reached the stage of life that George Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, refers to as "empathic leadership." Like most baby boomers, he spent the first part of his life focusing on his career. His need for achievement, mapped out when he was 12, has been replaced by an urge to build community and take care of the next generation. "I am interested in America in 2040, not just what's happening today," Dreyfuss says. "What kind of democracy are we going to pass on to our children?"

It's Pre-Partisan. Dreyfuss doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. Political and social activism are a normal part of his life, whether he's campaigning for candidates or protesting the war. In recent years he's worked to promote solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, lambasted television for what he calls "shaped news," and called for the impeachment of President Bush. Recently there has been a shift in his thinking. "I no longer want to be involved in partisan politics," he says. "I want to be pre-partisan. The guys who wrote the constitution were all partisan crazy maniacs, but they did not let their partisanship interfere with the structure of the systems they were creating."

For now Dreyfuss is hard at work on his civics project, crisscrossing the nation giving lectures on the importance of civics. "I don't like preaching to the converted," he says. "I want to talk to people who might think of me as their enemy." Dreyfuss imagines making a tour of the so-called red states. "I love it when people come up after a lecture and tell me they were prepared to walk out on me," he admits.

He toys with the idea of creating films that tell the story of the evolution of American democracy with all the twists and turns of a Dickensian novel. He has other ideas up his sleeve, such as creating an experiential train journey that would connect Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and Washington, DC, and establishing an institute for the protection of enlightenment and western political values. He's creating a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit that would allow him to raise funds for his ventures. "I am no longer an interview," asserts Dreyfuss. "I am a book. If I were more disciplined, I would write one: Civics, by Richard Dreyfuss." If all goes according to plan, the rebirth of civics will be his legacy.

Michele Morris writes for national magazines from Park City, Utah. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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