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William Fisher: In Praise of Professor Dreyfuss

In Praise of Professor Dreyfuss

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Tuesday 16 January 2007

A ton of important news stories got spiked amidst the cacophonous white noise created by the Baker-Hamilton Report and the Bush "surge" plan and reaction thereto.

One of the more important was the effort by Richard Dreyfuss to reintroduce civics to our public schools. The movie legend has launched a personal campaign to urge educators to teach their young students about the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and other government basics.

As a first step, the actor called together a group of school administrators, television producers, writers, and local leaders in Martha's Vineyard to discuss launching a civics pilot program at one of the island community's elementary schools. He told the media he's hopeful the effort will become a model for other schools across the country.

Because we are not teaching civics, he said, "our children are not learning about current events and how the government works. They need to be informed on what it means to maintain the system while sharing political space."

Bravo, Professor Dreyfuss! Americans' ignorance of their own history and institutions is no longer a matter of debate. It has been verified in survey after survey.

For example, one survey, cited by Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times, found that although 52 percent of Americans could name two or more of the characters from "The Simpsons," only 28 percent could identify two of the freedoms protected under the First Amendment. Another recent poll found that 77 percent of Americans could name at least two of the Seven Dwarfs from "Snow White," but only 24 percent could name two or more Supreme Court justices. Yet another poll showed that only two-thirds of Americans could identify all three branches of government; only 55 percent of Americans were aware that the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional; and 35 percent thought that it was the intention of the founding fathers to give the president "the final say" over Congress and the judiciary.

Other studies sadly point in the same direction. One showed that a majority of college students thinks the press has too much freedom. Another found that most Americans believe the freedoms of American Muslims should be restricted. Still another found that a majority of high school graduates couldn't find China on a map. And year after year, America's knowledge scores vis a vis other industrialized democracies keeps going south.

On the birthday of Martin Luther King, it is instructive to quote Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who wrote of a recent survey of college students that found that while more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, most of the rest thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

The question we should be asking is: How did these survey respondents ever get to be college students? Could there be a sadder example of the dereliction of responsibility in our primary and secondary schools?

Somehow, No Child Left Behind has managed to leave a heap of kids behind.

Lately, amidst our xenophobic immigration debate, there's been lots of chatter about the new test the government is proposing to determine which immigrants qualify for naturalized US citizenship. The LA Times's Rosa Brooks writes, tongue in cheek, that it "will rigorously assess immigrants' knowledge of 'the fundamental concepts of American democracy,' asking tough questions such as 'Why do we have three branches of government?' 'What is the rule of law?' and 'What are inalienable rights?'"

Ms. Brooks says that requiring those who want the privileges of US citizenship to have some minimal knowledge of American civics "is a great idea." Why, she asks, "should this country mint new so-called citizens who don't know the first thing about American history or law?"

Her zinger, however, is that she wants to make native-born Americans take the test too - and deport them to their last known countries of ancestry if they flunk. Why, she asks, "should we ask first-generation immigrants to know more about the United States than the rest of us?"

Good question.

Many readers will remember Richard Dreyfuss's 1996 film, "Mr. Holland's Opus," about a high school music teacher who "never gives up." In one scene, the principal tells him, "Your job as a teacher, Mr. Holland, is to 'give a compass for life' to the students ..."

I'm all for people listening to their emotions and beliefs. But it's tough to get a reliable compass for life absent information. And there is no information more critical to our country's future than the history of what has made us Americans. And what is expected of us if we are to remain Americans.

My family, I think, is more fortunate than most. My ten-year-old granddaughter's current assignment is to research and report on the life and work of Rosa Parks, and what it meant to her country and her countrymen. This, I hasten to add, had nothing to do with MLK's birthday. It was simply one of many subjects that are a regular part of her curriculum. Would that this were the situation in most public schools in our country - where civics education has become a seriously endangered species. I hope that at least a few readers will keep that in mind when their local school board chooses football over civics!


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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