The Need For Civic Education: A GovLoop Exclusive With Richard Dreyfuss

There’s always a lot of talk on GovLoop about attracting and retaining young talent in government. Obviously, there are things like paying more and making the hiring process simpler, but another big part of getting young people to take an active role in their government is educating them about the importance at an early age.

Recently, GovLoop sat down with Actor Richard Dreyfuss (yes, we actually did) to talk about his new program, The Dreyfuss Initiative, which focuses on revitalizing civic education in American schools. Mr. Dreyfuss’ program pushes for funding for civics through innovative avenues. The following is a excerpt from their site:

Civic education is the founding mandate of public education. Free public schools were developed in America for the express purpose of raising up good citizenship. This purpose has been abandoned and must be regained. Thus the mission of The Initiative is to create a demand for a more expert learning experience and to give our kids the splendid pleasure of learning what power they have.

Here’s Richard Dreyfuss himself telling us about the need for civic education in the United States:

What role do you think civic education plays in creating a culture where young people take an active role in government?

*** A special thanks to GovLooper Tara* for helping us film this interview. She’s a video rockstar!***

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Pam Broviak

It’s great to see civic education gaining momentum. In this short video, Dreyfuss nails so many of the problems the lack of civic education has caused. We are all frustrated with our political leadership, but they are only the result of the public’s lack of civic education. We don’t train people to understand and run government, and we raise people to think government is a joke and anyone can run it (much of this due to traditional news). So we end up with incompetent people at the helm put there by us – they fail, and we put another group in and the cycle repeats. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but I’m speaking in general. And as he points out, running government is so complex and difficult, it really cannot be done well without proper education.

My main suggestion for this initiative is to focus more on local government. My view is more at the local level, and this is where most people interact with government. While education about the federal and state government is important, it is even more important to focus on the local level. The other key component I see missing from his initiative is a focus on teaching responsibility as a citizen. My experience is this lack of understanding and accepting responsibility causes the majority of problems at a local operational level. Perhaps responsibility is buried within his initiative somewhere since he does discuss selfishness, and that is definitely an outcome of a lack of responsibility.

Well done Richard Dreyfuss and GovLoop – now to just get all this implemented in our school system as soon as possible.

Susan Thomas

Amen to Mr. Dreyfuss’s initiative. I hope he succeeds. I asked a thirty-something person the other day, “who was president of the U.S. when you were born?” She didn’t know. Sad.

Paul M Raetsch

I am convinced one of the primary reasons that our political situation has become so dysfunctional is the ignorance of the populace! I have taught MPA classes at a few schools and am amazed that less than 1/4 of the students had any Political Science classes as undergraduates. And most undergraduates I have taught did not have a full year of history, civics, etc. in high school.

Our system of government is not simple, and was designed to be thoughtful, cautious, and free. Many citizens are cynical to the point of believing all government (local through federal) is bad (evil even), corrupt, unresponsive and unable to address problems. We want simple answers, immediate gratification, at no cost.

I believe the most distressing results from this cynical attitude, is either complete disengagement on the one hand, and refusal to compromise on the other.

The “T” party followers like to credit the Founding Fathers as their heritage. Balderdash! Had these folks bothered to read, or have been taught about, our history, they would have found that the Founding Fathers had absolute faith in compromise. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, etc, had major disagreements. They did not act like the T party ‘faithful’ who will not compromise. Indeed, our system is based on compromise, and was made deliberative in order to keep one ‘faction’ from taking away the liberty of all. Checks and Balances, Separation of Power, etc, resulted from the belief that liberty needed to be protected from government – and factions.

I have ranted a bit, but truly believe that the country would be much better off if the citizens understood how and why our governments operate the way they do.

Susan Thomas

Well said, Paul. Compromise is key with this budget mess we are in. But, some people would rather grandstand and placate contributors rather than do the right thing.

Bradley D.Olin

I think this is one of the great challenges confronting our (gen y/millenial) generation.

While it’s easy to point fingers at technology and the loss of community as people have retreated from playing in the front yards with neighbors to playing online with complete strangers all around the world, there’s an even greater disconnect and I completely agree that it’s got to begin with education. We, as parents, also have a role to play when it comes to instilling values.

During my high school tenure I watched as government/econ courses went from mandatory, to elective, to being cut altogether. Civic pride and involvement has all but vanished among my peers. Most have never been to a city council meeting, or even know who represents them at the local, district, state or federal levels. We don’t all need to be activists, but I agree that the complete disengagement is hurting us as a nation, and as community members as well, as the fringe and extremist voices become the loudest, if not the only voices being listened to.

Mark Hammer

Routinely, nations like Finland and New Zealand come up near the top of the rankings when one looks at surveys of citizen trust in government (here’s the 2010 Transparency International rankings: )

I would be curious to know what sort of civics education they provide in their schools. I know whenever I encounter rabid anti-government attacks in on-line fora, they are frequently from folks who haven’t the slightest idea how their government and public sector work. For me, understanding of government and “civics” is fundamental to the collaborative trust and effort that makes a nation great.