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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Civics Unrest: On Teaching Kids to Love Democracy

With a presidential election on the horizon, teaching about our country takes on new importance.
By Richard Dreyfuss
Credit: Indigo Flores

I believe America is a verb, not a noun. America is the greatest opportunity for people to live in fairness and decency, but only if you accept the idea that America is an ongoing activity, rather than a done deal. America as an evolving concept has meaning; our country offers more potential for human freedom and mobility of mind than any other sovereign nation created in the last 10,000 years. But if America is just a noun, a static object, it should be treated as any other nation. Nothing special -- simply a place that is south of Canada and north of Mexico.

One of the fundamental tenets of our democracy is that we allow and share disparate opinions. That principle must be honored. If we do not honor disparate opinions -- if we heap scorn and contempt on those whose ideas differ from our own -- and if we humiliate dissenters for exercising their right to dissent, we are being fundamentally antidemocratic.

This is an important point to teach our children, and this is why it is critical that we continue to teach our children both civics and civil debate as a key part of our schools. If we no longer teach these skills and we expect our children to inherit this great nation, it's like giving someone the keys to the car without requiring them to first obtain the skills needed to drive.

The expertise needed to understand Western enlightenment and civil liberties is not something you are born with. You have to learn it. Unless we teach our kids the ideas that make America -- the government -- a miracle, it will go away in their lifetime. We must find the time and creativity to teach civics in school. If we don't, we will lose it to fundamentalists of every stripe and to stupidity and the darkness.

A great example of this danger is our modern excuse for debate, particularly televised debate. We don't show that complex issues require time to understand. We don't reason things through. We don't applaud rumination and taking your time.

Instead, we watch the Bill O'Reillys and Sean Hannitys and call it discourse. But is this really debate? Of course not. Politics and news have been hijacked as mere sources of entertainment. We confuse the melodrama of incivility with how public issues are meant to be discussed. Is this the way we want our children to behave: insulting, annoying, and loud? Is this something our kids should emulate? Instead, we need to teach our kids the tools of reason, logic, clarity, dissent, civility, and debate. We must teach them that it's OK to keep asking new questions. Those things are the nonpartisan basis of democracy.

What has happened in America is that we have confused confrontation and opposition with discussion. We have turned debate into entertainment. And we have created a system where dissent -- the essence of a democracy -- is considered antipatriotic, when in fact the opposite is the case.

Democracy is hard work. It requires our attention, because if we don't use it, we lose it. Democracy will not go away in a single dramatic event. No one will ever say that this is the day it died. But this is the state of things now: Unless we are careful, America will turn into a legend, a story, a fable. All it takes is some inattention. It takes a belief that we don't count. It takes cynicism in our country. Cynicism is probably the least attractive thing ever created, and it always comes from a broken heart. The only reason people get cynical is because of love gone sour: At one time, there was an America we loved, and now it's gone sour.

This country, the idea that we are responsible for our own government, represents a tiny twinkle of light in a long world history of monarchy and theocracy and oppressive darkness. If our form of representative democracy lasts longer than our lifetime or our kids' lifetime, it's only because we put some effort into teaching the ideals of opportunity, mobility, freedom of thought, and assembly.

America in its imperfection may be unsatisfying, but it is alive. And it is up to us to make sure America keeps on living. Kids must be reminded of the great parts of this country -- the parts that aren't always so easy to see or hear. Unless we give them something to fall in love with, why should they be in love?

Credit: Indigo Flores
Richard Dreyfuss is an actor who has appeared in more than forty films, including every teacher's favorite: Mr. Holland's Opus. This column is based on remarks he made at the 2007 Teaching & Learning Celebration conference, held in New York City.

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