Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rebuilding America's Civic Culture

[Richard Dreyfuss' Remarks at TEDx]

You might know me as an actor, but I’m here today as an advocatefor a very particular kind of education that I believe has gone missing from our schools today. Those of us who are older know it as civics. But I’m talking about not just one single class that you take in high school, but a complete K-12 curriculum.

Why do schools need this curriculum? I believe that tomorrow’s leaders need to be able to do three things, and do them very well.

They need to engage in civil debate.

They need to be pre-partisan.

And they need to appreciate the revolutionary notions that this country was founded on.
Let’s start with civil debate. Imagine we’re in Philadelphia. It’s July, 1787, and the Constitutional Convention has been in full swing since May. It’s hot and humid, we’re wearing wool suits and powdered wigs and pantaloons with stockings. We’re probably pretty cranky.

Fifty-five delegates from the thirteen former colonies are—pretty much—all arguing with each other. We’ve been independent from Britain since 1776. We have a temporary government, but it’s not working very well. We have to figure out how to rule ourselves.

You have the rock star, George Washington. Loaded with charisma and gravitas. If I was casting George Washington for a film, I couldn’t cast him. No one is good enough; no one living today has enough star power. Washington was the first person to think of himself as an American, as opposed to a Brit. King George thought he was the greatest man in the world, because he had willingly given up power.

There’s Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s right-hand-man during the war. Hamilton was the only true genius in the group, a person whose ability to understand political power was immense. He knew that this country could only be great as a world power, a manufacturing and industrial power. Hamilton looked west and saw the continent stretching out before us. He knew the future lay west, not east back across the Atlantic.

Our third key player is thirty-four year old James Madison. Shy. Short. Nerdy. Bookish. Absolutely brilliant at politics. He drafted a good part of the constitution while waiting for the others to arrive. Madison took notes under the table throughout the convention, so we have a pretty good idea of what went down.

Everyone at the convention has a different idea for how to structure the new government. Some want to copy England’s system and make George Washington king. Some want to let each state rule itself. Some want three Presidents, to share the power. Three presidents! Many of these men couldn’t stand each other, and Washington was frequently called over to mediate among them.

But throughout their disagreements, they maintained civil, if sometimes heated, debate. They found common ground. Civil debate is uniquely American, this idea that everyone has a voice, and all voices are equal. We take freedom of speech for granted, but it was these men in their powdered wigs who designed our system.

Is this what you think of when you think of the founding fathers? These guys couldn’t stand each other. Some of them were at risk of hanging if they came home with a single, federal government instead of each state being independent. But they worked through their differences and eventually came up with our constitution. Washington later described it as “little short of a miracle.”

So that is the first key aspect of American leadership that we need to be teaching our kids: civil debate.

Next is the ability to be pre-partisan. What do I mean by that? That you value the country more than your party, that you value the good of the whole, even before the good of the state that elected you.

It’s a pretty tall order. Our democracy depends on this principle. That a citizen of Tennessee can morph into a citizen of the whole, make decisions for the whole and—in many cases—make decisions against Tennessee, that's a pretty tough thing. It’s a very high expectation that we have of our citizens.

But tomorrow’s leaders need to recognize that some issues should be accepted and agreed to by all Americans, regardless of our party. Like civil liberties, free speech and assembly, freedom of religion, and the other amendments in the Bill of Rights. So teaching kids how to be pre-partisan is key.

Debate teams are a great example of this skill in action, because you are have a 50/50 chance of having to defend a position you disagree with. Learning to make a case for the other side allows you to have a broader understanding of the issue.

The third aspect of American leadership that we need to teach is to appreciate the revolutionary.

What was revolutionary about democracy? First of all, it depends on citizens, you and I. You don’t need good, educated, engaged citizens when you have a king or a warlord running the country. But democracy depends on everyone playing their part. Not just voting, but being engaged in the process. Understanding and appreciating how revolutionary democracy is.

What is amazing about America is that we said:

If you can get here, you can rise. No guarantee. But we give you the opportunity to rise, to be mobile, to start again, to fail and start again, to fail and start again. You can move around, say what you want, do what you want.

We were, and still are, a political miracle. And I mean, a political miracle. Because the norm is so dark and bloody and so unfair. We offered fairness and we offered a legal system that said no one was above the law. And that was completely unheard of.

We can see revolutionary in the Preamble of our Constitution. Let’s take a look.

We, the people of the United States:

Think about that for a minute. Never in history had a document like this been written. This assumes the people are deciding their own fate. This assumes that there will be a United States. It assumes that the average person from Tennessee or Massachusetts could be educated enough to help lead the country.

Think about that for a minute. All other forms of government assume you have to be born into leadership, or that leadership is won through violence. But in America, anyone in this room with the inclination, education, and drive, can run for and win office, and lead.

In order to form a more perfect union… by that they meant, a better way to lead, a better form of government than having a king tell you what to do, or having lords born into leadership who will always be in office, no matter how poorly they lead or how corrupt they are.

This next section tells us what the government is supposed to do. Notice the words in bold.

Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves…

These are all active verbs. That means that the constitution is a living document, always able to be modified and interpreted. That’s why we still elect people to office, still have a Supreme Court, still have a President, still make laws.

Now the next three words are the ones I want you to pay special attention to:

and our Posterity.

Who is posterity? Posterity is our kids and our grandchildren.

And that’s what I fear is in jeopardy right now. Why? Because we no longer teach kids how democracy works. We no longer teach civics, how to debate in a civil manner, how to reason through a problem. Just turn on any news channel and you’ll see what I mean. People have no idea how to reason through a problem, they just repeat sound bites over and over.

If we don’t teach kids how democracy works and why it’s so special, so revolutionary, who will run the country in 30 years? In 50 years? Who will have the skill set to run the country when your grandchildren grow up?

Kids need to learn how we share public space with those we disagree with. How do we debate issues with civility? How can we tell facts from spin? They also need to learn how to communicate clearly, so they can interact with public officials or speak at a community forum.

These three elements: civil debate, being pre-partisan, and appreciating the revolutionary are critical life skills. We don’t need everyone in these civics classes to get a 4.0… we simply need enough people to get 4.0s to eventually run the country.

So I started this organization, The Dreyfuss Initiative, to address this issue. We’ve partnered with The American Bar Association and Common Core to develop a K-12 curriculum that offers elements of civics in lessons for every grade level. And I’m asking you to do a couple of things tomorrow.

For kids who are watching, go online and sign our petition, asking that they teach you how America works.

For parents, ask your kid’s teacher tomorrow, is civics being taught? Is debate being taught? And, how can I help?

If you don’t have kids, call your local school and ask if you can volunteer to help with a debate team or to teach civics or American history.

No matter what your politics, whether you’re a republican, independent, green, democrat, or libertarian, this needs to matter to you.

Because America is still the best answer to the question humans have been asking for 13,000 years: how can we live together in peace and prosperity?

And we need to teach our kids how to run it.

Thank you for your attention.

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