Last summer, Dreyfuss and his longtime friend and Martha's Vineyard educator, Robert Tankard, spoke with the island's Superintendent, James Weiss, about teaching a new civics curriculum. They wanted parents, teachers, students, historians, and others to collaborate on it, use the Martha's Vineyard school system as a laboratory, and then offer it as a model for a national civics revival. Weiss said that if they could generate interest in the local community he would implement the classes.
"I never heard such a great offer in my life," Dreyfuss says. "It's the difference between walking and talking." And that's how Citizen Dreyfuss found himself talking civics with the community last week.
Dreyfuss spoke about the risk of doing nothing. Without doing the rigorous work, the training, and learning "the tools of democracy, we leave the running of our system to happenstance and luck. We can kiss it goodbye in the lives of my children and yours."
Dreyfuss found a receptive crowd. On the importance of civility an elderly man said, "You were born with two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth. Use them in those proportions." Others complained of people "making up facts in order to win arguments." Or "bashing others to score political points instead of working to solve problems." They felt that civics education needed to start younger so that by the time people finished high school they were practicing citizenship rather than learning it. Historian Gordon Wood told the group, "We are a nation of immigrants.... What holds us together? It can't be Starbucks and McDonald's. That's why we go back to the Founders--equality, liberty, self-government.... If younger people don't know [this foundation], they will lose any sense of collectivity, identity as Americans." Sociologist James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, also participated in the meeting and called the teaching of civics "one leg of many in our culture to revive and renew us." A retired principal spoke of the obstacles created by No Child Left Behind--the forced focus on reading and math, and the consequent cuts to music, arts and other programs. "To be successful, we need to think of the whole child again," he said.
There was another target on the mind of Dreyfuss and many of the citizens at the meeting: the media, and especially television. (Dreyfuss calls television "possibly the worst thing that ever happened to us. I think it shortened our brains. I think it created road rage. I think it killed rumination. I think it allows us to think that we are discussing serious public issues when we're not. I think that it has become the place of serious public discussion of issues but it isn't. And it just passes for that.") He said that television is where we go for news information. It delivers information through image (rather than text) instantaneously, leaving no time for rumination. He cited 9/11 coverage as an example--the instantaneous images of the Twin Towers replayed over and over again--leaving room for nothing other than feelings of "grief and revenge." Dreyfuss believes television has caused us to reinterpret what makes a good politician (the image being more important than the text). He called people in the industry "like addicts--denying that a problem exists." Meanwhile, he says, we accept the medium as offering the same level of reflection and insight as reading and rumination. There was general agreement that we have lost our way in teaching young people to be critical thinkers and sort through the information industry.
As the meeting ended, Dreyfuss asked: "Are you in favor of teaching civics in American public schools?" He called for the nays and there was silence. Dreyfuss allowed it to linger. Finally, he asked for the yeas, and hundreds of people responded with enthusiasm. The contrast was striking, and Dreyfuss had clearly drawn on his skillful sense of timing to orchestrate the moment. Dreyfuss and Tankard had achieved their objective of demonstrating strong public support. Participants were invited to attend a follow-up session at a local high school the next day where the focus would shift to developing a pilot program.
After the meeting Superintendent Weiss said that there is an eighteen-month window of opportunity to revamp civics education on the island. The standardized testing in social studies for the state will be decided during that time period and curricula will be revised. He said that eighteen months was "just enough time" to succeed.