Richard Dreyfuss to discuss importance of teaching, practicing civics

The Founding Fathers did a wonderful job creating the United States of America, according to actor R

The Founding Fathers did a wonderful job creating the United States of America, according to actor Richard Dreyfuss. Now, more than two centuries later, it’s our turn to make sure that the reality remains as close to the ideal as possible.

That job isn’t an easy one and, according to Dreyfuss, it takes an educated citizenry to keep things on course. Educating that citizenry has become his mission over the past few years. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dreyfuss’ traveling civics class, “A Conversation on Citizenship,” will convene at Schenectady County Community College’s Taylor Auditorium.

‘A Conversation on Citizenship,’ with Richard Dreyfuss

WHERE: Taylor Auditorium, Schenectady County Community College, Schenectady

WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday

HOW MUCH: $10; free for SCCC faculty and students

MORE INFO: SCCC book store at 377-1606

“The Founding Fathers were a very smart group, and they took advantage of a window of opportunity called The Enlightenment, and the fact that they had an ocean preventing other people from coming over and slaughtering them, to create this democratic republic,” said Dreyfuss. “Unfortunately, being sovereign isn’t something that comes easily. It’s more complex than anything I’m aware of.”

Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar for the 1977 film “The Goodbye Girl” and was nominated again in 1996 for “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” began thinking about putting together his civics program in 2004 after giving a lecture on American democracy at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford in London.

“Civics is teaching people how to maintain the system while sharing the political power,” said Dreyfuss, reached at a friend’s home this week in California. “But everyone in history has been tutored. Alexander the Great needed Aristotle. But at some point, we began to feel like we couldn’t afford to teach it to our young. It’s one thing to throw away art and music, and that’s very damaging, but it’s another thing to stop teaching civics. That’s like telling the kids to take the car out of the garage and go to the gas station when they don’t know how to drive. It’s gonna kill people.”

Brooklyn native

A Brooklyn native who turned 61 on Oct. 29, Dreyfuss was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1970s. His first big success was “American Graffiti” in 1973, which he followed up with “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” in 1974. Superstardom came in 1975 with the release of “Jaws,” and he backed that up with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and then his Oscar-winning performance in “The Goodbye Girl.”

He has remained a busy actor ever since, and recently played Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s “W,” released last month. His film career, however, is now playing second fiddle to his civics class.

“I don’t know if I would call it retired, but I stopped doing what I was doing to do this,” he said. “I’ve formed a nonprofit to do this, and that’s how I’m going to spend my time.”

Dreyfuss was happy with Tuesday’s election outcome, and while he praised John McCain’s concession speech and his short talk at the Alfred Smith Dinner last month where he shared the dais with Obama, he expected more from the Arizona senator during the campaign.

“I watched [McCain’s] speech Tuesday night and I thought he was wonderful,” said Dreyfuss. “I don’t think his audience during the campaign should have been given the license to behave the way they did, like booing Obama’s name. He stopped it at one point very well, and he was great at the Al Smith dinner. So you know he was capable of it. I just think he should have done a little more.”

Dreyfuss says he isn’t a partisan Democrat. In fact, he’s not even bipartisan. He’s pre-partisan.

“I became an Independent before the campaign started because I think we’re all victims of the need to redefine words like liberal and conservative, and right wing or left wing,” he said. “I no longer want to be involved in partisan politics. I want to be pre-partisan.”

Along with acting and politics, another love of Dreyfuss’ is history. For the past few years, he and Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer have teamed up to present a series of historical lectures and readings, most of them relating to Civil War general and 18th president U.S. Grant. In April 2004, the two men were at The Egg in Albany for a show sponsored by the New York State Archives.

“As long as Harold keeps on writing those books, we intend to keep on doing it,” said Dreyfuss. “I actually read quite a bit, and a lot of it is historical.”

Focus on history

Dreyfuss’ work with Holzer isn’t his first foray into history.

“Twenty years ago, I did a show that was a celebration of the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “In it, I asked people what their definition of citizenship was, and to me it’s the comprehension of the difference between a republic and a democracy, and the understanding of why we have one over the other. We have to figure out where it came from and why, and realize that the Founding Fathers weren’t these demagogues of perfection who wrote down this perfect document for all time.”

Dreyfuss hopes to remain as busy as ever speaking on civics.

“Some people might have a tendency to think the job is done just because Obama was elected,” he said. “But I’m going to keep right at it. The history of the world is a history of the fight between the light and the dark, and the dark never goes away completely. This is a critical problem our country has, not just another issue. That’s why civics has to be taught to every generation. That’s the only way to guarantee that this thing we call the American dream will continue.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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