Passion for civics no act for Richard Dreyfuss
Actor Richard Dreyfuss hopes to snatch today's students from the jaws of apathy about their role as American citizens in preserving representative democracy. Last Wednesday night at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, he hosted the first of three forums designed to promote civics education. The star of the movie "Jaws," filmed on Martha's Vineyard 32 years ago, Mr. Dreyfuss packed the house with a mix of educators, politicians, historians, authors, television producers and writers, civics-oriented organization leaders, and other community members.
"Civics to me is the teaching of reason and logic, and upholding the values of dissent, debate, and civility," Mr. Dreyfuss said. "If we don't teach it, we will lose the system. I speak to you as an American, who wants my kids to know what it means.
The discussion focused on the importance of civics education in producing active, involved citizens to preserve America's representative democracy, and the need to restore the subject as a separate field of study in public school curriculum.
Mr. Dreyfuss said he plans to hold another forum about civics at Oxford University in England. "The third conference is the pink elephant in the living room," he said, focusing on implementation. "We have to find ways to teach civics, to connect us with our love affair with America."
The forum came about through Mr. Dreyfuss's long-time friendship with Bob Tankard, an All-Island School Committee member who formerly served as West Tisbury School principal. The two of them met last summer with superintendent of schools James Weiss, who endorsed not only the idea of the forum but also the creation of a pilot civics program.
Last week Mr. Weiss, a former history teacher, told the audience, "I view public schools as one of the key vehicles for helping people become citizens."
Opening the discussion, Bunnie Strassner, the executive director of Fascinating Learning Factory, a non-profit children's educational programming organization, said that many people think civics should be taught outside the classroom because they view it suspiciously as a collection of "values," which might conflict with their own. "With the No Child Left Behind law, the movement for high-stakes testing has had an enormous impact on education," she said. "Children need to learn how to be critical thinkers again."
Several educators expressed their concern about how the emphasis on testing in schools, such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment, has impacted the curriculum. "During the past decade, schools in the United States have been forced to focus on a narrow field of education," said retired Edgartown School principal Ed Jerome. "A lot of programs were lost along the way. We need to think about education of the whole child again. We've lost that." The audience applauded.
Noting the lack of students attending the forum, Elaine Weintraub, history department chair at the regional high school, said that they tend to be cynical about the political process and need to see how civics is relevant.
Part of the problem with civics education in the past was the boredom factor, several people commented. James W. Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me," declared that civics was the most boring class he ever took.
Mr. Loewen's book documented the inaccuracies and gaps he found as a sociologist who surveyed 12 leading high school textbooks of American history over a two-year period at the Smithsonian Institution. "We're here because of the relative failure of the way history is taught in American schools," Mr. Loewen said. "We need to fix history, and with that comes an opening for civics education."
Mr. Dreyfuss talked about keeping civics education non-partisan, with the emphasis on being an American rather than a Democrat or Republican. Pulitzer-prize winning historian Gordon Wood, a professor of history at Brown University, concluded that what holds Americans together is not ethnicity or a single religion, but rather a set of values. "If young people don't understand their collectivity, they'll lose a sense of what it means to be an American," Mr. Wood said.
Some Island teachers disagreed that civics education no longer exists and provided examples of how they teach it. Eli Lesser, director of teacher education and civic outreach at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, offered his organization's Constitution High School as a model for incorporating civics education into all curriculum areas.
In follow-up to Wednesday night's discussion, Mr. Dreyfuss met with a smaller group Thursday at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School to brainstorm ideas for developing a pilot civics education program for Island schools.