Q&A with Richard Dreyfuss

Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss is taking a break from Hollywood to focus on his nonprofit organization, the Dreyfuss Initiative, aimed at improving civics in American education.

In town last week to speak at the Library of Congress, the longtime political activist told The Hill why it’s so important that future generations of Americans understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

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Q: You’re well-known for your acting career. How did you become interested in civics?

It started actually a long time ago, in ’67, when Jim Garrison of New Orleans had a case against Clay Shaw for the assassination of the president. And one night NBC, without any publicity, gave … the best defense attorney in America a half-hour of prime time to deconstruct and destroy Garrison’s case before it had come to trial.

Q: Isn’t that unethical?

Isn’t it? Yeah, and when no one else said that, I thought for the first time, there’s something wrong here. And I then began to follow the spore of that, and it culminated in the decision by the [Supreme] Court to interfere in the state court’s decision. 

Q: What led to your decision to found the Dreyfuss Initiative [a nonprofit corporation formed to revive, elevate and enhance the teaching of civics in public schools]?

I was in London, set to do the London opening of “The Producers,” and I was fired because I didn’t know how to sing or dance, which I had told Mel [Brooks] the first day he had asked me, and he said, “Oh, who cares, you’re funny.” And days before the first preview audience, he fired me, and I said, “But I’m still funny!” And I found myself in London with no desire to come home. I wanted to spend time there, so I started to lecture and to write … This was 2004, and I watched [Hurricane] Katrina from Europe. And the Europeans are a thousand years ahead of us in how to oppress the poor, but they were slack-jawed in incredulity … In essence it was the very first time that the American government had simply abandoned a city. And then when [President George W.] Bush did say [in] his first public statement … that he was going to rebuild Sen. [Trent] Lott’s [R-Miss.] mansion, I said, “That’s it.” So I told my friends that I was retiring, and I gave myself over to this endeavor. 

Q: Why is it important to educate our youth on civics?

We are the only nation bound by ideas only. We have no common ancestry or religion or military victory or defeat, and if we’re not taught those ideas in every generation, we’re not bound … The mandate of education is quite simple: It’s to make our kids smarter and hav[e] a reinforced intellectual resource pool. And not having it, our commerce sector will be shredded within the next 30 years. Our military will no longer be considered reliable.

Q: How do you recommend going about improving civics education in America?

What is civics? Civics is not only how to run the country before it’s your turn to run the country; it is, in fact, the study of power, practical political power. And you must start that process at an age level when kids’ brains are still open and malleable. If you hold it off to university level, the first problem you face is cynicism … You begin in kindergarten, first, second and third grade with the same kind of glory tales and myths that we now use, except we would create an invisible connectivity of agenda that leads toward enlightenment values. And then you teach the talents to reason with logic towards clarity of thought and expression, critical analysis, which is the only thing that requires emotional maturity. And then in every other class, whether it’s journalism or science or mapmaking or astrophysics, you use classroom exercises of dissent, debate, civility, context and opposing views. And that way you not only learn the subject better, you learn how to think.

Q: What does the Dreyfuss Initiative aim to provide?

We have been offered the institute on the George Washington family property in West Virginia, which we will turn into the first institute for the study of enlightenment values … And we’ve gotten promises from Harold Holzer from the Metropolitan Museum [of Art] and others that when we acquire the rights to the property, he’ll give me a list of writers, authors and educators who would line up to [take] part … [It’s] an institute that will be visited by high schoolers and university-level [students] and guided by the docents of the state into the best debates, best discussions in the country.

Q: How soon could we expect to see results due to improvements in civics education?

I’m in this for the long haul … I believe that there is a possibility that within two generations, we could learn the secret of the splendid pleasure of learning for learning’s sake. And kids will run to school in the morning because they know that’s where the fun is.