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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.

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

et's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While Keith Olberman and Bill Maher can get on their soapboxes, at least they do not make up facts or
take messages out of context. You do not have to agree with them, but I believe they make an attempt to be
fair. Bill Maher especially sometimes agrees or understands some conservative viewpoints.
We need to teach our students how to be critical thinkers. We need to teach them what is opinion, what is fact.
It is difficult when opinions or political agenda are reported as truth or fact.

It is detrimental to our students and our country to be led to believe that any political editorialist is delivering information
without a slant.

Wes Priest's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Argh, people like Marlene are completely missing the point of Dreyfus's essay. Getting students excited about the ideals of America requires work and effort, and this should be the goal of ALL educators and parents. O'Reilly and Hannity do not, in any way, positively contribute to this goal. They are entertainment, and, unfortunately, too many Americans have conflated the idea of political discourse with this kind of vile entertainment. The result? A lot of chest thumping and schoolyard posturing, a lot of light and no heat. And this false bravado wears the mask of enlightenment. How sad.

And Marlene's reference to MoveOn? This is a straw man argument, and has nothing to do with the essay. By drawing attention to the fact that Dreyfus referenced two bellicose conservatives in the media in his essay, Marlene is attempting to discredit the substance of the entire essay (a tactic, not coincidentally, used by Hannity and O'Reilly all the time). The rise of Olberman and Maher (in his current iteration) are a reaction to this very slimy rhetorical device.

Remember, MoveOn, Olberman and Maher only found their voices after the rise of Hannity and his ilk. Oh, yeah, and the former don't lie. And to think that an educator would rather have his or her students listen to Hannity and O'Reilly than to critically look at the aim, mission, and accomplishments of a grassroots organization like MoveOn that has registered thousands to vote, shed light on internet privacy issues and challenged/questioned President Bush on the war in Iraq (and questioning your government is not a right...it's an obligation) is frightening.

Thanks for including Dreyfus's essay in this edition of Edutopia. My students have read it, as well as the comments posted at the end.

Bruce Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it interesting that Dreyfuss' article and the comments as of this afternoon all omitted what to me is the critical point: that democracy cannot be adequately taught as a classroom topic. As President of the Center for Advancing Sudbury Education, it frustrates me greatly that we talk about the importance of instilling students with an understanding and love of democratic principles even as we educate them in very undemocratic settings.

In contrast, schools following the Sudbury model of education know that democracy must be lived if it is to be learned. These schools are working democracies in which all students and all staff have one vote in all matters, from rule-making and -enforcement, to budgeting, to personnel decisions.

Until our schools are themeselves run democratically, we cannot expect our children to know what democracy is truly all about.

Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please explain this to me. After reading this I went to MoveOn's web site to find the hatefulness apparently inherent in its content. Marlene, please direct me to the items that are "particularly hateful." My guess is you won't, or can't. O'Reilly once referred to this group as "communist rat bastards", and I don't get that one either. Is it because they have different ideas than you do? Is it the grass-roots nature of this organization? Particularly hateful communist rat bastards sound pretty scary to me. How come I can't see through their thin disguise?

Jersey Bob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Len, the major difference between Bill O'Reilly & Sean Hannity on one hand and Keith Olbermann on the other is this: the Fox boys have been caught red-handed telling bald-faced lies and half-truths over and over. (If you want specific examples, I'll provide them. OK, here's one: do you remember O'Reilly quoting nonexistent statistics from the nonexistent "Paris Business Review"?)

But Olbermann uses something called "accuracy", a technique that jack-booted, right-wing extremists aren't familiar with. Olbermann checks his facts and doesn't make stuff up. Sure he's opinionated, but he doesn't lie to his audience.

Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and Joe McCarthy would have loved an outlet like Fox Noise.

Richard Dreyfuss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The fact that we have a republican democracy and not a democracy, pure, is a fine example of what I'm musing on. Why isn't that taught to our kids? It seems pretty basic, pretty critical stuff, the difference between democracy and representational democracy. And what world it came out of, not just the War of Independence. That we don't parse such a complex thing is the flaw I am asking to be addressed.
There are a large number of comments I've read referring to my remarks, which you should know is some one else's rewrite of what I said. Who did that or why I don't know, but it's fascinating that they had to have some transcript of my actual speech because all of it was rewritten into someone's rhetoric. The basic ideas I'll stand behind, tho.
Though I do think that all political shows are tainted by Television's unwritten rules and demands, and that Bill Maher would be able to produce a better show if he wasn't hamstrung by the Requirements of Punchlines and Short Answers, he is bright and basically unencumbered by Ideology and Incivility. He is not a simple person to compartmentalize, nor is our system so easy as not to need training and educating in order to maintain it.
Incivility is the sin of Fox News, where Demeaning and Bullying and Name-calling and Interrupting are the rule. It's our secret pleasure, like slowing at a car accident hoping to see something gruesome, knowing its not us who are dead. People aren't that rude and contemptuous in real life, are they? Bill O'Reilly calling me a Pinhead for asking him to promise not to interrupt me for 3 minutes; bet his kids don't act like that. Bet his kids, if they acted like that, would be reprimanded for that kind of behavior. Being rude to your guests is simply wrong, as Mike Huckabee said to me, who is the exception on Fox, a host's job is never to belittle his own guests; and Being Rude, and ridiculing, and holding your opponent in contempt makes it impossible to have a conversation devoid of melodrama, makes Substance and Context and Interesting Conversation Impossible. Do we really want Yelling and Screaming to be the norm of public discussion? Isn't that what little kids do, and when they do it we try to teach them not to? I'd love to hear some grown-ups from the right and left and center; that's what this Pinhead wants, anyway.
Civility allows for the sharing of space with those with whom you disagree. It's the oxygen democracies require, or they'll die. Fox should hire me; seriously, Roger Ailes should hire me because I want to introduce Good Talk without Contempt, because I think TV is a technology that is damaging without scrutiny, and because it would let Bill and Sean just stroll down to my office if they Just Had To Get Something Off Their Chests. But politely, which Huckabee thinks is the better way, and he's right.

abbarossa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish Richard Dreyfuss well in the task he has undertaken to teach civics and encourage civil discourse among our people. We sure as heck need it. After the last election where left wing fringe communities, the press and MSNBC seemed to be aligned with the Obama and right wing fringe communities, talk radio and Fox News seemed to be aligned with McCain, I couldn't take it anymore. Are we a people so infused with celebrity that we have forgotten what it means to be an American citizen. We have a Constitution which is the bedrock of our country and is the only place that we as a people can point to with a claim that we as individuals (not communities) have rights and protections under the law. Beyond that, I believed until recently that we had a national ethic that broadly asked for fair play and decency in the way we treat one another as individuals. As I watch almost any panel disscussion on television now, they all seem to turn into shouting matches. Communities of politically aligned individuals seem bent on defaming their opposition and killing what remains of America outside their community. It seems we have become a people that have clotted together into tribal membership in some politically active community. Nobody talks about how great it is to be an individual living in America anymore. Why can't we enter into discussions that use the term "I" instead of "we". When ACORN registers dead people and ficticious citizens to vote "I" am hurt because my vote doesn't count. On the other hand, when marriage is redefined by the gay community to include gay couples "I" am disappointed in the change to our traditions but "I" am not harmed by that decision. When a baby is aborted "I" am confused because the same people who would say killing an unborn child is just, might say that "I" am acting unjustly if "I" use a handgun to defend myself in my rural home against a violent home invasion by a teenager. I have quit all political alignments. I am not angry enough to join one. I will, however, try to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic in the only place left to the individual were the Bill of Rights still applies: my home and curtilage. From this castle I will live peaceably with my fellow man and let the communities duke it out until the last "I" is standing.

Gary Moraco's picture

I would not mind if the social discourse became alittle more scholarly.And I may have to use less slang if that ever happens.Not to worry.That will happen the same time I figure out how to keep a picture of myself up there.

amyecurtis's picture

Dear Mr. Dreyfuss: I'm thankful that you have taken this on! I agree with what you said, but please consider/mention that the "Bill O'Reillys and Sean Hannitys" aren't the only ones on radio/TV who "discuss" issues so "passionately"...Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, The View, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, etc...just to be fair. :)

4Cents's picture
4Cents
Psychology Prof

Not everything is a democracy where everyone has a vote. If I were to have my students vote on what assessments they were to complete, they would not pick appropriately. They certainly would vote for no exams or homework etc. They do not always know what they will need in the future and what activities will help them achieve the skills needed. As an educator, you come across as a parent saying, "Trust me I know!" and they do not believe you. While some careers will allow them to vote on aspects of their job, many do not. The incivility is also in the classroom, and at every level. Mr. Dreyfuss mentioned learning from parents. There are many parents who are not ideal models of behavior for their children. I was just notified last week Purdue University has laptops and cell phones placed in plastic bags with your name on them and they are placed in a bin during exams. You get them back with an ID. No hoodies or sweatshirts with pockets. A posting on Yahoo today discussed how students use photoshop to make very realistic labels for bottles which contain exam info. When teachers do call the students on these behaviors it is the parents who say "Not my child" because many of them are not the civil models they should be. Am I talking about ALL students. Absolutely not. It is difficult as a teacher to allow conservative views because many times it will be viewed as bullying or discrimination. Lets say someone does not believe in a different sexual orientation. If a student expressed this just saying I don't believe in this orientation, that is fine. Unfortunately they do not just say, "Oh I don't believe in it" respectfully. They say it is wrong and I hope you go to H. and you deserve to get HIV etc. It is this behavior which is not allowed and then they claim we don't allow conservative viewpoints. This is the incivility we need to prevent. It is very hard to "fall in love" with someone freely expressing that opinion. It is harder even to allow it when students, perhaps rightly so, will sue a school for allowing this behavior under the principle of Freedom of Speech and Democracy. If someone spoke like this on the job what would happen?

Mr. Dreyfuss is correct on critical thinking skills being needed. I would add science based information and how to evaluate what is an excellent source of information. Students watch incivility on tv also. The countless reality shows from Snooky to the Housewives etc. They think this behavior is cool because we are glamourizing it. I can't tell you how many times I've asked my students to not text in class and they still do. Dr. Jerome Kagan's work finds that people know what is right and wrong but they lack the moral emotions of doing wrong. They say, "I know it is wrong, I don't care." Student of course think the policies a teacher has are wonderful when they make sure other students are penalized for being late etc. But if it is them, the policy is unfair, they complain to administrators, text their friends, go on Facebook bashing teachers etc. Again, it is hard for young people to learn when there are so many adults thinking and behaving in the same manner. If we cave in to these tantrums, whether students or parents, we are reinforcing the poor behavior.

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