Saturday Special (05/06/2023): Richard Dreyfuss and civics

I’ve seen Jaws lots and lots and lots of times. Never get tired of it.

Richard Dreyfuss was pretty sharp in that movie as I recall.

The stubborn mayor scoffed at Dreyfuss, but I didn’t (I know, it was only a movie).

Fast forward to today, and Dreyfuss gets credit for even more (and real) smarts.

Actor Richard Dreyfuss Discusses Importance of Teaching Civics in American Schools

Understanding the Constitution is necessary for good citizenship, Dreyfuss says

Actor Richard Dreyfuss arrives for the Los Angeles Premiere of "Sweetwater" in the Steven J. Ross Theater at the Warner Bros. Studio Lot in Burbank, Calif., on April 11, 2023. (Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images)

Actor Richard Dreyfuss arrives for the Los Angeles Premiere of “Sweetwater” in the Steven J. Ross Theater at the Warner Bros. Studio Lot in Burbank, Calif., on April 11, 2023. (Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images)

By Ella Kietlinska and Jan Jekielek, The Epoch Times
May 5, 2023

Passive citizenship in America is the direct consequence of public schools not teaching about people’s constitutional rights and the rules for governing the country enshrined in the Constitution, said actor Richard Dreyfuss.

Dreyfuss—who won an Academy Award in 1978 for his leading role in “The Goodbye Girl” and has acted in other famous films such as “What About Bob?,” “American Graffiti,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and more—spoke to The Epoch Times at Hunter College in New York City on May 2.

Dreyfuss was at the college for a discussion about his book, “One Thought Scares Me…”

People who have not been taught civics do not understand the powers civil authorities have been given or the hierarchy of powers, said Dreyfuss, who has advocated for the need for civic education in the American school system since 2008 with his organization, The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative.

Dreyfuss explained that it is too late to learn civics after a person gets elected to Congress.

“You have to learn it and learn it so that it’s in your DNA. And that’s why you study the Constitution,” he said.

America’s founding “was the marriage of the secular and the spiritual,” Dreyfuss said. “It has worked. It stopped working when they stopped teaching.”

Lack of Civic Studies

Epoch Times Photo
A classroom at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York City on July 22, 2021. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

In his book, Dreyfuss asserts that civics has not been taught in American public schools for over 50 years.

Civics has not been completely abandoned by schools, as many schools teach a subject named civics, but they do not teach about how the republic governs itself, and the requirements vary from state to state. As a result, students lack proficiency in civics.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said in a 2018 report (pdf) that large percentages of college students could not answer basic questions about the American political order because most of them never had any basic instruction in civics.

This reflects “the neglect of traditional civics instruction at every level of education, from grade school through college,” Wood said in the report.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities said in its 2012 report commissioned by the Department of Education (pdf) that “only 24 percent of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics in 2010, fewer than in 2006 or in 1998.”

“Among 14,000 college seniors surveyed in 2006 and 2007, the average score on a civic literacy exam was just over 50 percent, an F,” the report said. “Half of the states no longer require civics education for high school graduation.”

Wood said that civics in the traditional American sense meant learning about how the republic governs itself.

Wood said civics should include instruction about the government branches, the obligations of citizenship, constitutional rights, and the system of checks and balances that divide the states from the federal government. Students should learn how citizens take responsibility for their government, which includes voting, serving on juries, running for office, and serving in the military, Wood wrote.

Teaching Civics

Epoch Times Photo
Page one of the officially engrossed copy of the Constitution signed by delegates. A print run of 500 copies of the final version preceded this copy. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Civics also teach people how to get along with the human proclivity for having different opinions, Dreyfuss said.

“No one expects everyone to have the same opinion,” he said, adding that the idea that everyone should agree came about because people stopped defending republican democracy via the Constitution.

This country is defined by the Constitution, Dreyfuss said.

“It requires a dissent. And it requires an argument. That’s called perfection,” he said.

During a Q&A session at the Hunter College event, Dreyfuss said that civics should be taught “from kindergarten on and in every class,” not just in the highest grades, likening it to how the Ten Commandments are being taught every Sunday to religious believers.

People should learn the Constitution “because it’s the largest step forward in moral progress in the history of the human race,” he added.

Dreyfuss said at the event that he wrote his book to remind people that they are “the sovereign power in America.”

If someone gets elected to Congress, that official is not the people’s boss, Dreyfuss told the audience.

“They’re not our boss. They are our servants, public servants,” he said.

If they do not do what people ask them to do and if they do not constantly ask what people want, people should “get rid of them and take over the government that they took from us,” Dreyfuss said. “I’m not asking for a revolution. I’m asking for participatory citizenship.”

People became passive through the changes in the education system that led to the abandonment of teaching civics, Dreyfuss said at the event.

Voices Calling to Abolish the Constitution

There are some voices calling to abolish the Constitution. Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at The Week, called the American Constitution “a piece of junk” and suggested throwing it out.

Louis Michael Seidman, a law professor at Georgetown University, argued that the Constitution is outdated and advised to give it up. Dozens of students at the University of Florida signed a petition to abolish the Constitution.

But Dreyfuss told The Epoch Times he would ask those who want to replace the Constitution for a better alternative to it.

No one has laid out the structure of the federal government—and the way for the states and the federal government to work together—better than the Constitution, Dreyfuss argued.

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