Sunday, December 03, 2006

Richard Dreyfus to the Rescue!

If you are a civics teacher, take heart! It's Richard Dreyfuss to the rescue! Today in a taped interiew on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulus, it was announced that Dreyfuss will soon be beginning a "personal campaign" to teach civics. Lucky us!!! Dreyfuss might have wanted to enlist people who teach civics and government for a living, like me, as allies, but his approach for doing that is about as smooth as John Kerry's for winning the hearts and minds of American soldiers in Iraq.

Dreyfuss began his interview by saying, "The teaching of civics presently in the United States is dismal and startling." I always love it when some "important person" repeats that type of cliche, because they are oh so knowledgeable. Dreyfuss didn't explain why he believed the teaching is so dismal, so I have no idea where he got his information--maybe at a Hollywood cocktail party. But I guess that doesn't matter, because after all, Dreyfuss did play a teacher in a movie once. That should qualify him as an expert on the subject shouldn't it?

Dreyfuss goes on to say, "It used to be, when I was a kid, that there were classes in civics and you learned not only the checks and balances, but hows and whys and wherefores. And you learned what was the reasoning behind the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. …" The obvious implication of this is that they used to teach civics a lot better than we do now. I am fifty-five years old, so I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s, and I don't think that's the case. I wonder what evidence Dreyfuss has to the contrary.

I would like Dreyfuss to know, that at least in my neck of the woods, we are doing our best to teach civics. The problem is that a lot of kids don't really care. Some do, and it's entirely possible that Dreyfuss did when he was a student, but most of them don't. They simply don't see how it matters to their lives now, and now is the time that most kids care about. My guess is that when Dreyfuss was in his teens, many of his classmates probably didn't care that much about it, either, but he just didn't notice.

If Dreyfuss wants to go on a campaign to convince kids that civics does matter, we would love to have his help. But to begin that campaign by simply repeating cliches that the subject isn't being taught well can only infuriate people like me who actually have to try to do the job. I can tell you one thing: if there is ever a rematch between Richard Dreyfuss and Jaws, here's one guy who will be rooting for the shark.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I especially like the intro: "The Oscar award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss played a teacher in "Mr. Holland's Opus." Now, he's becoming one in real life."

No comment. But does he get extra money to buy a new stapler when the kids break his? Because if he does, I'm going to be peeved.

12/03/2006 4:32 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"if there is ever a rematch between Richard Dreyfuss and Jaws, here's one guy who will be rooting for the shark."

ROFL. Great line.

I can't speak to what teaching was like in the 50's/60's, but I don't think it's any worse now than in the 70's/80's. I didn't think it was that great then. . . but I don't know that I've seen evidence that other places/countries/states are far above others, so I don't know on what basis one would claim it was "dismal".

Of course, my only basis for what it's like now is my first-grader, but it doesn't seem so off the mark. He's learned a bit about Anne Frank, MLK and Rosa Parks, a bit about the founding of America, and some other bits. I don't think it's organized into a "course of study", more opportunistic than anything, but it's only first grade. I've also started teaching him the basics of the Bill of Rights, primarily first and second Amendments (first because it's so prevalent in its effects on our society, second because it's really surprising for a kid, and has a lot of academic value in teaching kids to question things (without having to come down to a specific side on the matter)).

Given there's no "national civics exam", I would suspect Dreyfuss gets his info by watching "man on the street" interviews on Jay Leno. And he gets his "authority" from once play-acting a pedophilic teacher.

I don't blame your disgust at this.

Here, on looking, I'll give you a free argument for why high schools are doing a fairly good job. The civic literacy report at indicates that college seniors score only 1.5 percent higher than college freshman. While this indicates dismal college teaching (possibly related to a large number of factors), it also indicates that high schools take students 98.5% of the way to being a college graduate in civics. Okay, so it's a sort of backhanded argument, and can be weakened by the fact that most college seniors would still fail a civics exam. But, you'd think just another 4 years of life would improve student performance by at least 1.5%, and most colleges have at least some requirement in the area of history.

12/04/2006 6:57 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Although, looking at another blogger, it does make me question how much educators are doing to get students to care.

IB a math teacher

If you don't fail when you don't make an appearance 40% of the time, teachers aren't using the incentives they do have.

12/04/2006 7:26 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, despite the little shot at the end that you just couldn't resist, your support is downright heartwarming!

12/04/2006 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dreyfuss is correct about the constitution and bill or rights in regards to what is taught in schools. It is troubling that people who don't have a clue about the reasoning behind our constitution and bill of rights are teaching civics to our children. From what I have seen, that includes you, Dennis. No wonder most Americans don't know what freedom is and how important it is to our human dignity.

12/05/2006 6:52 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Can you realistically say it's worse than previously, Steven? I can't.

I'm not sure the entire basis of why you're saying Dennis "doesn't have a clue" about the reasoning behind our Constitution/BOR. Can you clarify? Dennis knows I'd be the last to defend him from a reasonable argument. . . :) But seriously, if you make a broad-based argument you ought to give enough specifics so someone knows how to defend themself. Otherwise you're just tossing insults.

Teachers probably don't have a profound knowledge of the Constitution/BOR generally. I don't know that they need this profound knowledge in order to teach basic rights. I took a year of Con Law; it was Hard, and would be difficult to pass on. Most teachers I would assume have far less time to devote than a full year, and would thus never have time to get into the issues.

Of course, some of the problems with teaching civics could be related to
other issues. Now that's something to complain about.

12/05/2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, where in the world did that insult come from? Are you having a bad day, or what? Just so we're clear, I want you to know that I will compare my knowledge and understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights with yours any day of the week. I doubt very much that you are even in my league.

I disagree with a number of people on these blogs, and sometimes I even get a little angry with them. But I have to concede that some of those people who make me the angriest are very bright and articulate. You need to understand that people who don't have the same radical views as you aren't necessarily ignorant.

12/05/2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

And Crypticlife: Thank you!

12/05/2006 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that you would write such a nasty and condescending post that ridicules Richard Dreyfuss for making some fairly intelligent comments about what students should be taught regarding civics, and then be offended when someone gives you some back. Perhaps you should have toned down some of your insults aimed at Mr. Dreyfuss.

I'm sorry, Dennis, but I have to say that Kderosa is right about you being an apologist for the public schools. You seem to feel that anyone outside the education establishment that dares to criticize the public schools should be ridiculed and scorned.

My "radical" views regarding the proper role of governemnt in a free society are pretty much in line with those of Jefferson and Madison. The purpose of our written constitution and our bill of rights is to limit the power of government to only what is necessary to secure the natural rights of individuals (life, liberty and property). That is something that I have never heard on this website or read in any of mine or my children's school textbooks or ever heard from any teacher.

And one last thing, Dennis. I have never considered you or anyone else making comments on this website to be ignorant, whether you agree with me or not. I just think that you and others are being close minded to other people's right to direct their own life as they see fit. Kind of like the religious right is.

12/05/2006 6:50 PM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

I am amazed at the people that feel qualified to be experts on public schools.

I think there's so much negative info on public schools (that's just plain untrue)--they think they know stuff they don't.

For me at least, you are on the front lines--and you are qualified. I have enjoyed your blog and your book and I continue to appreciate what you are doing.

I am wondering if so many wanna be experts think they have that *right* because they pay taxes? In any case, I know my middle name is Pollyanna, but I encourage people that want to bash public schools to get some unbiased information.


12/06/2006 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading jettybetty's comments I have to retract my statement about not considering anyone else making comments on this website to be ignorant. Apparently jettybetty thinks that we taxpayers should just shut up and pay. I think jettybetty should check her arrogant meter.

12/06/2006 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jettybetty, I apologize for the "ignorant" part of my comments. But the rest of my comment stands.

12/06/2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


As taxpayers/parents/citizens, we do have the right to comment. The main problem I have with Dreyfuss is he's using his acting fame to give his voice unwarranted weight.

And, you don't want us to shut up. Because they're things we're thinking, regardless, and if we don't put voice to them, you'll never have the chance to argue. That's one of the benefits of free speech.

"encourage people that want to bash public schools to get some unbiased information"

Clearly, we would not come here for that. I think Dennis would be the first to admit he's biased. His blog is "A Teacher's Defense of Public Education". He's put himself squarely on the side of public education.

I'm biased too. I have children, and I want them to get the best education possible. And I want my taxes low as possible. I'm squarely on the side of my children, and myself, and any improvements I've suggested for teachers are out of self-interest.

12/06/2006 1:59 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, let me explain my disgust with Richard Dreyfuss. First of all, because of the adulation they receive in our society, it seems to me that many people in the entertainment industry think that they are smarter and more wonderful than they are. It’s possible that’s not true about Dreyfuss, but in the interview on ABC, he did nothing to dispel that impression.

I have no idea what you do for a living, but my guess is that there are some problems in your job that are hard to solve and are much more complex than anyone who doesn’t do your job realizes. Now let’s say that some Hollywood star, who knows very little about what you do, comes out in public and announces that he is going to solve the problem. And he begins by saying that you and others in your position are doing the job dismally. I suspect that you might be a little annoyed.

You accuse me of being closed-minded, but that seems to be in the eye of the beholder. You think I’m closed-minded because I don’t agree with you, and I think you’re closed-minded because you don’t agree with me. I actually think I’ve been pretty open-minded in most of my discussions on these blogs, but I have gotten angry once in awhile. You see, this really does matter to me. I take a great deal of pride in what I do, and I’ll bet you do, too. If someone attacks that, and I think it’s unfair in any way, they’re going to get a reaction. I want to make clear that when I said that your views are radical, that wasn’t meant as an insult. They are radical, and I disagree with them, but being radical isn’t bad in itself. In fact, the ideas that I’ve proposed for improving education would be considered radical by many in the educational establishment, too.

I am not going to argue about my being an apologist for public education. In fact, I’m proud of that. The word “apologist” might have negative a connotation, but my dictionary describes it as someone who makes a defense for something. That’s what I do, and I’m going to keep on doing it.

And JettyBetty, I think I love you! I’d ask you to marry me, but I think my wife would object.

12/06/2006 6:35 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

By the way, Steven, I do intend to address your arguments about public education and the Constitution in a post soon. It won't be the next one, but it shouldn't be too long after that. I'll bet you can't wait!

12/06/2006 6:36 PM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

Dennis, my husband would object, too--but just wait until I tell him I was called ignorant and arrogant. Blogs can be so fun--I can assure Steven I am not ignorant--arrogant would be his call--however, I stand by my comment.

12/06/2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12/07/2006 7:17 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"I am wondering if so many wanna be experts think they have that *right* because they pay taxes"

What right? The right to speak? The right to hold an opinion about themselves? Even non-taxpaying minors and the unemployed have the right to speak. I think your implication that people have no right to comment is what causes a perception of arrogance.

Dennis, I think you're close-minded because you've adopted a particular position and plan to stick with it. You're "defending" public education, you're not going to turn around and attack it regardless of the evidence. You're in the same position as a lawyer defending a client. The most you can really claim is that you're open-minded on particular points, and that you're reasonable (well, you can claim it, whether it's true or not ;)).

Just to be clear, I'm not saying it's immoral or wrong to take a close-minded stance. Even if you came off unreasonably (as lawyers often) do, I would merely chalk it up to a zealous defense. It can be helpful to have someone who represents one side's undiluted interests.

12/07/2006 7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Please try to get to your post by the end of the year (if possible). I'm a CPA that does a lot of tax return preparation. From January 2 through April 15 I don't have time for much else besides work and my children.

Can you sense the irony of someone with my views having to see all the money people fork over to the government each year? Just so you know, I DO NOT encourage people to cheat on their taxes. I encourage them to vote.

Thanks crypticlife, you said it so much better than I could.

12/07/2006 8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have an entry on your discipleship blog titled "What if Muslims took over America?". Let's assume that they took over America not by military action, but by relocating here family by family and eventually outnumbering Christians, which is entirely possible over the long run.

If this were to happen, what kind of government would you want to have in place here; 1) the Jefferson/Madison version in which "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, and shall leave them otherwise free to pursue their own forms of industry and improvements", or 2) the version we now have, in which the government is involved in almost every activity we engage in (including the education of our children)? Would you want a Muslim run government in charge of educating your children?

You can probably guess which one I'd vote for.

12/07/2006 10:21 AM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

I said *experts*--you speak all you want--you have a right to your opinion. I have a problem with people who want to tell teachers how to run their classrooms--tell schools how to run their schools. There are ways to let your opinions be known (at least where I am in Texas there is)--it involves accountability--not just talk--but it's relatively easy to do. I totally support those methods.

I've seen people repeatedly think they should *run* the schools because they are the tax payers. They know little about teaching or running a school. It would be total chaos if they got their way.

You sound like a great parent. I can tell you really do want the best for your children--and I respect you for seeking the best education you can get for them.


12/07/2006 11:56 AM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

I think it is so possible that's the way Muslims could take over the US. If they do come into control of this country--I honestly don't think they would pick either of those forms of government.

Would I want a Muslim government in charge of educating my child? No, but I pray I would be the disciple God wants me to be no matter what my external circumstances are.

There's a pretty good discussion going on over on that blog if you would like more info. I won't clutter up Dennis' blog. Please feel free to post comments over there. It's a group blog and we are pretty loving listeners! =-)


12/07/2006 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that I'm beating this into the ground, but I just went and relistened to the extended version of Dreyfuss' interview and reread Dennis' post and all the comments, and I have to say that I can't believe that any of you actually listened to what Dreyfuss actually said during the interview. Not what the talking heads said about the interview, but what Dreyfuss himself actually said. What Dreyfuss said made a heck of a lot of sense to me, especially coming from a person connected to Hollywood. That doesn't happen very often.

I never heard Dreyfuss claim to be an expert in anything, but people commenting on this blog keep acting like he did. One commentor said that he probably got his information from "man on the street" interviews with Jay Leno. No, he said that he went to Oxford to learn about why civics is important. Dreyfuss never claimed that he got his authority by playing a teacher in a movie. You just assumed that.

Please, listen to the extended interview. It's less than 8 minutes long. Dreyfuss is not a genius, and he sometimes confuses democracy with liberty, but what he says is well worth hearing.

His hat was terrible, though.

12/07/2006 6:17 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, I did see the interview. How much Dreyfuss actually knows about civics, I have no idea. What I object to is his very first statement that we are doing a dismal job teaching it. That implies that he has a lot more expertise about the teaching of it in this country than he does. He will now undoubtedly go waltzing into certain selected classrooms around the country, and the kids will probably be dazzled because a famous star has come and told them that civics is important. After he leaves, the kids with wide eyes will completely agree--for a week or two--and Dreyfuss's mission will be judged by the media to have been a great success. Then he will move on to some other project and people will wonder why we can't get kids interested in the subject like Dreyfuss did. Hey, I'll bet if I can get Jessica Simpson to come into my class and say American History is important, my boys will be real interested. Heck, so will I! : )

12/08/2006 2:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, his statement about us doing a dismal job teaching civics came near the end of the interview, and it was in response to a question he was asked. I would have given the same response, and I don't consider myself an expert at civics, even though I have done a fair amount of reading on the subject.

Who knows, Dennis, maybe his statements will spark an interest in civics in some people that wouldn't have been interested otherwise. I certainly don't see how, even at worst, his comments did any harm. They may have offended you, but for the most part I think they were pretty much on the money.

What is the record for the number of comments to any one post on your blog?

12/08/2006 8:19 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, I should clarify myself. What I saw was shown at the end of This Week With George Stephanopoulus. On that segment, his "dismal job" comment came at the beginning.

I think the most comments I've had is 27, and you were an important participant on that. By the way, I am at work on that post I promised. Your comments are a major part of it, and while I'm countering your points, I'm not trying to be belittling about it. I hope that comes through to you and anyone who reads it, and I think it will. Hopefully, we can disagree without being disagreeable.

12/08/2006 1:23 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


as for me, you're right, I made assumptions about the interview. In my defense, I will say that I qualified these in my comments above regarding the "man on the street" thing, and as far as his authority, I'd point out it would be easy to find people who'd studied the issue more and had better thought-out opinions than Dreyfuss, but he's the one one TV because he's a famous actor. It's not where Dreyfuss claims authority that matters.

In fairness, though, I'll go watch the extended interview, just to see how the "dismal" comment came about. Teaching civics in this country could be dismal, or it might not be -- but if one claims it's dismal without having some kind of measure, a goal, and comparisons, then one's mainly being insulting. There might be a lot of other statements he could make -- civics should be taught better in this country, many high school graduates don't have a good understanding of civics, etc. -- that would be far less inflammatory.

I also look forward to your post, Dennis. I'm interested in seeing what the main points a high school teacher teaches about the Const/BOR. Do you teach commerce clause? 14th amendment? 4th amendment and the "penumbra of rights" including "right of privacy"? Well, I guess I'll wait for the post...

12/08/2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

I think I was involved in that 27 comment post as well so I think it's appropriate that I weigh at this point. You know, I introduce the Constitution to nine year olds. The trick is to get them to see the importance of it. They need to understand where all of these rights they can tell me they have come from. I see kids connecting the dots from what they already know to what they learn from me. I see kids who seem to get it for the most part. So what is happening between fourth grade and the higher grades? Why do they tune out? Why do they not care? I think it's for a myriad of reasons.

The last thing I would want to do is sit through a year of Constitutional law. Boring....and I LOVE THE STUFF. I've read almost every one of the Federalists papers, I keep myself updated with what is going on with the Supreme Court, and I was a paralegal for many years. I rarely ever have to rely on any of that background knowledge I have to teach my students. The goal is not to have every student in America to spout point-counterpoint from the Federal papers or other bits and pieces of Constitutional history. For the student who is not going to go on and obtain a degree in that particular area they only need to know the basics. It's not rocket science to teach and it certainly is not Greek to learn. I'm over qualified to teach what I do with with the Constition. Dennis, I know you're over qualified due to the number of years you have worked with the curriculum. You and I both know many other people who have what it takes to teach Civics......we also know some who don't.

I don't necessarily mind Dreyfuss getting involved, but I do mind the comments that are blanket indictments over all educators. Some of us are out here tap dancing every damn day to get kids motivated and day after day we see the same crap from up on high, the same crap from the media, and the same crap from society. Why can't we get them to like it? Why can't we get them to learn? Since they aren't liking it and learning it, then it must be because the teacher isn't doing her/his job. That is not always the reason. If a Civics teacher is providing interesting lessons and differentiates them to meet all learners everyone should leave the room with the objective met, but at some point the learner has to meet the educator. I can present it a thousand different ways, but if it's not accepted the learning won't be retained. We back up and we try again, over and over,and over, but at some point our time with students runs out and they don't come to us anymore.

My past experience with Dreyfuss does make me question his agenda. He was heavily involved at one time with educational issues involving Native Americans. He had something to do with a very good Native American museum that was put together by one of the colleges I have a degree from. He was "into" that for awhile before something else became his pet project.

I almost didn't comment because the post caught me off guard and I like to have my act together before I comment. Plus its gotten a litte dangerous around here to express your opinion.....I don't really want to be called a name like arrogant or ignorant. But I've waded in and now I wait.....:)

12/08/2006 3:11 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

EHT, can you handle being called "brilliant and insightful"? Honestly, I think your comment is excellent. Whether others agree with you or not, you put so much of what I've wanted to say so much better than I have. I think the wrong person wrote a book!

Regarding the new record on comments for one of my posts, for some reason I think my Morrie post might not beat it. I guess I'll just have to take Han Solo's advice to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars I: "Don't get cocky, kid!"

12/08/2006 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting examples of many people using their First Amendment rights to have a discussion. AFAIK, Mr. Dreyfuss has some experience with our constitution. Didn't he experience it (due process, the right to remain silent (Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination), the right to a lawyer and the right to a public trial, all when he was arrested for driving under the influence ?

Heres an observation. Perhaps some folks are too quick to place blame on a lack of Civics instruction on teachers. Here in California, students are exposed to our Government and Constitution in Grade 8 and Grade 12. Sadly, not everyone makes it to Grade 12. And if they are not making it to Grade 12, chances are they were not paying too much attention, exhibiting a poor attitude towards their education when they were in Grade 8 and reveling in their "right" to do whatever they feel like doing without consequences.
Aside from the teachers in schools, do the parents of children in public (or private) schools demonstrate the citizenship skills for their offspring? Do they take them to the polls to at least be with Mom or Dad (or both) when they go to vote? Do they take their children to meet elected officials when their elected officials host get-to-gethers of whatever sort in their home districts? Do the parents write to their elected officials when they wish to express an opinion on a current topic? And here in California and a few other places, are Mom and/or Dad who legally immigrated to this Great Nation of ours working to become citizens?

Don't lay it all on the backs of the teachers. The teachers I know bust their behinds to try to help teach their students. Take a look at the students and their parents for the source of much of our national educational woes.

12/20/2006 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Citizen Fermoyle,

I am a silly person finder. I found you. You are a silly person.

American public k-12 education is in serious trouble. That puts American governance in serious trouble. This is patently incontrovertable to any citizen who has read the Declaration of Independence and watched Leno's Jaywalking.

You are silly - not just because you revel in trite ad hominim abuse of another's proposal - but because you miss the point of criticism of our vital public schools altogether.

Unlike you, Citizen Dreyfus has spent the last 2 years formally educating himself at Oxford College on the pedogogy of civics instruction. Why must ridicule him personally for pursuing a thoroughly selfless and plainly competent effort to improve our society?

Finally Mr. Fermoyle, Citizen Dreyfus, and yours truely, are not critical of your personal or professional contribution to the education of our kids. We are critical of the institutions you are confined by in their effect. The kids are ignorant on how to protect their own Liberty. This isn't about you. It's about your country.


1/15/2007 2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come late to this discussion, but I just had to write something in response. Dreyfus isn't lacking for education in the area of civics and world politics. As someone else mentioned, Dreyfus has spent the last three years as a senior associate member of St. Antony's College at Oxford, studying and lecturing on democracy and it's underpinnings. In addition, I quote from a Boston Globe article published today, 2/7/07:

"His activism is no act, either. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Dreyfuss has been closely aligned with progressive and civil libertarian causes for years. In 2003, he helped organize a Geneva conference attended by hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians hoping to broker an unofficial peace treaty. A year ago he called for President Bush's impeachment in a speech at the National Press Club, after news reports surfaced of a warr a ntless surveillance program being conducted by the National Security Agency. Organizations with which he's been closely affiliated include the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and Council on Foreign Relations ."

Two comments -- you really should do some research about someone before reflexively trashing them. Perhaps more to the point: Your port is all about you. Perhaps Dreyfus' rather remarkable experience (and yes, his celebrity) will benefit the way we teach civics. I would think you'd welcome the assistance rather than complain.

2/07/2007 3:08 PM  

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