Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss had a full house in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Wednesday night for a conversation leagues away from the blockbuster film that put both him and Martha's Vineyard on the map: reintroducing civics to the public school curriculum.
The seats were filled with teachers, school administrators, politicians, historians, authors, educational programming directors and parents - and many travelled long distances to attend.
"I am not speaking for the parties," Mr. Dreyfuss told the audience. "I am speaking as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about. If we don't teach the simple basics, we will be captured - as we have been captured - by interests that may not be our own."
Civics is the branch of political science that deals with civic affairs and the duties and rights of citizenship. It's a simple definition with a complex role to play.
In America, the public schools were created to both educate young people and produce capable citizens for the country, Mr. Dreyfuss said. However, in the last 30 years, civic instruction has all but disappeared from the curriculum. Schools no longer teach the information and tools required to understand America's republican democracy or the Constitution and Bill of Rights that created it, he said.
"Whatever the ‘why' is, we don't teach it now as we have been," Mr. Dreyfuss said.
He said he has heard concerns that teaching civics would teach partisan values, but he argues that civics is "pre-partisan." It's based on values everyone agrees on, he said: dissent and debate. These are necessary to cultivate critical thinkers - and strong leaders. "There is not a corporation in the world that would hire a CEO that knows nothing and cares less about the product of that company," he said.
The Martha's Vineyard Civics Conference was the first of three conferences that Mr. Dreyfuss will hold, and although civics is an intrinsically American concept, the next conference will be held in Europe.
Wednesday night's discussion continued yesterday during a luncheon at the high school, where experts suggested concrete ways of incorporating civics into the curriculum of the Vineyard public schools.
"It's not boring," Mr. Dreyfuss said of civics on Wednesday night. "What we've got here is a thriller. Representative democracy is as thrilling as anything Charles Dickens wrote and Alfred Hitchcock ever shot." There are surprising adversaries and allies and remarkable victories, he said.
The Vineyard superintendent of schools, James H. Weiss, addressed the audience briefly, and said why the Vineyard was chosen for the first conference.
In the middle of last summer, school committee member and former West Tisbury School principal Robert Tankard and his friend of 25 years, Richard Dreyfuss, came into his office wearing shorts and T-shirts.
"They came to me and said they had an idea," Mr. Weiss said. "They said they would like to have a discussion about civics." He fully supported them.
"I view the public schools as a key vehicle for helping people become citizens of this country," Mr. Weiss said. "We hope this will be the beginning of something."
Although 40 states acknowledge the importance of civic literacy in their state constitutions, it's still not taught, noted Bunnie Strassner, executive director of the Fascinating Learning Factory, a nonprofit that creates educational programming for television and the Web. Many studies, reports, national leaders and educators have shown ways that this has damaged the nation.
"We have to stop studying and start doing," Ms. Strassner said. "We can't run our country without active, engaged citizens." A higher percentage of young people are voting now than in past years, Ms. Strassner noted - but still only about 13 percent.
"That's unacceptable," she said. "They have our future in their hands."
Former long-time Edgartown School principal Ed Jerome said that testing requirements have forced schools to focus on a narrower field of education. He recommended beginning to teach civics in kindergarten, so by the time students are in 12th grade, "they're not learning it, they're practicing it."
James W. Loewen, author of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me (which he described as "the best-selling book by a living sociologist") said that public schools have problems with social studies and history in general. History always ranks last when high school students are asked to list their favorite subjects and most students get a total of four minutes on the Vietnam War, he said.
Mr. Loewen's book focuses on falsehoods in American textbooks: for example, the notion that race relations have steadily improved since the end of the Civil War. In fact, race relations got much worse before they got better, he said, and there is still a problem. "Besides not being true," Mr. Loewen said, the steady improvement perspective in textbooks "is boring."
In history, as in politics, "you have a right to your own opinion, but you do not have a right to your own facts," Mr. Loewen said. "The teaching of civics is one of many things that will revive and renew us."
Debate forces opponents to reveal their facts and reasons, exposing bad information. Although the word "civility" means politeness these days, it actually means a willingness to share a political space with someone with an opposing viewpoint, Mr. Dreyfuss said. A teacher of civics in the audience pointed out that people polarize their viewpoints in order to attack an opponent, but those strategies lose their effectiveness in a true debate.
Marshall Segall, a member of the up-Island regional school committee, said that although Mr. Dreyfuss called civics "an issue that has no enemies," there are real opponents to teaching it. Mr. Segall said that some people may fear it will foster values that are not theirs.
Tristan Israel, chairman of the Tisbury board of selectmen, encouraged local involvement in politics. One day, he started wondering who in town made a particular decision that affected him, and that led him to get involved.
"I started seeing on a local level how easy it is to make a difference," Mr. Israel said, noting that people often say he must be crazy to volunteer for a task like town selectman. "It used to be a noble thing to do that kind of stuff," he said.
Overall, the audience's commentary was diverse. A man from South Korea who has spent seven years in the United States said he was surprised that he had seen no one publicly voicing opinions or protesting the war in Iraq or other controversial matters.
A self-described "old soldier" who now works with teachers in Philadelphia told the audience, "I'm here to tell you we're in one hell of a mess."
A historian said that America is lucky that its sense of nationhood is not ethnically oriented, like it is in Europe. "To be an American is not to be something," he said. "It is to believe something."
In a comment that was quite popular with the audience, an older gentleman said simply, "You were born with two eyes, two ears and a mouth. Use them in those proportions."
Mr. Weiss told the Gazette yesterday that a pilot program could be instituted in the school within the next year. The program would be designed with the help of experts from across the country and would create the groundwork for a national civics revival.
"I disagree with the end of last night's session," Mr. Weiss said yesterday. "What people came away with, I think, is ‘civics: yes or no' - and that's not the question. There is no ‘no.' We have to do civics. It is one of the fundamentals of the public schools."
Mr. Weiss said that Island teachers will likely begin training over the summer with the National Constitution Center, a pioneering learning center and museum in Philadelphia that opened Constitution High School last September. The timing for a curriculum change is good, Mr. Weiss said, since the schools have to revise the social studies curriculum within the next 18 months to meet the new MCAS standards.