- A famous Hollywood actor gives civics education a failing grade.
This week on Firing Line.
["Jaws" theme song] His iconic roles include oceanographer Matt Hooper in Jaws.
- That's a 20 footer.
- [Hoover] Anxious teenager Curt Henderson in American Graffiti.
- I'm telling you, this was the most perfect dazzling creature I've ever seen.
- [Hoover] And the music teacher with big dreams in Mr. Holland's Opus.
- What's this called?
- [Students] Lover's Concerto.
- Who wrote it?
- The Toys.
[piano playing] - Wrong.
- [Hoover] In 1978, Richard Dreyfus won best actor for his performance as a struggling actor in The Goodbye Girl.
- Also, I sleep in the nude, buff-o.
- [Hoover] He's also portrayed real life figures.
- We're from the FBI.
Do you know why we're here?
- [Hoover] Including villain Bernie Madoff.
Offscreen, Dreyfus is focused on a real-world problem, America's failing grade at civics.
- There is no defense of Republican democracy going on in public schools.
- [Hoover] And what that means for our future.
- I think we're in the end game right now.
We could let slip the greatest idea for governance ever devised.
- [Hoover] Plus, he's not afraid to call out the problems he sees in Hollywood.
- We're going through this strange need to not create, but to create sequels.
Sequels are death.
- [Hoover] What does Richard Dreyfuss say now?
- [Announcer 1] Firing Line with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation, Jeffrey and Lisa Bewkes, The Beth and Ravenel Curry Foundation, Peter and Mary Kalikow, and by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalyn P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button, The Center for the Study of the International Economy Inc, The Pritzker Military Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, and The Marc Haas Foundation.
Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. - Richard Dreyfus.
- Welcome to Firing Line.
[Dreyfuss laughing] - It's been years.
I've wanted this for so long.
[Dreyfuss and Hoover laughing] - You have portrayed notable American figures from Vice President Dick Cheney to Secretary of State Alexander Haig to Ponzi scheme scam artist Bernie Madoff.
And you have often said that you would like to play Ulysses S. Grant.
As a student of American history, are there other uncommon Americans you would like to portray?
- Aaron Burr.
- Because I don't think he ever did anything wrong.
And I think he's- - Go on.
- No, he was a very remarkable man.
And he said things that were adorable.
Like he once said to a bunch of lawyers, "Never write anything down because someday someone may read it."
And I think that's great.
- But at the time that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, he was widely reviled.
- Do you feel drawn towards characters in history who are misunderstood or who deserve a more nuanced- - I was gonna teach a class once in misguided heroes, people who were interpreted as villains and who did not deserve it.
And at that time, Aaron Burr was the top of that list.
But there were others.
And Warren Harding is one.
And Herbert Hoover was another.
And seriously, there are lots of heroes who aren't or shouldn't be.
And we've done our level best to either confuse ourselves with history or just hope that no one notices how badly we teach it.
- Well, you have been warning Americans for more than two decades about our failure to teach the next generation civics.
- Actually, you spent four years researching civics at Oxford.
And out of it came a book, "One Thought Scares Me: We Teach Our Children What We Wish Them to Know; We Do Not Teach Our Children What We Don't Wish Them to Know."
- [Dreyfuss] Right.
- How do you define civics?
- Civics are the tools that allow you to understand the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.
Why, for instance, are there some rights that are included within the Constitution and some that are not.
- The rules of the road in democracy?
- Well, it's how do you get there.
And it included the ideas that you needed critical analysis.
You needed to have a clear head.
And reason and logic were a part and parcel of civics.
And if you didn't learn reason and common sense, you were left behind.
And it demanded that the people know how to explore an issue and not just vote.
And that is all civics.
- You attribute the decline in civics education to the 1970s when young adults who had experienced the social upheaval from that period began to serve in public office and on school boards.
You were born in 1947, which makes you among the last generation to receive a solid civics education in the public schools in this country.
What do you recall about your own civics education?
- I had two teachers in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.
And they were both ardent Republican.
And my mother was a communist and she wasn't kidding.
[laughs] And we were raised in a very leftist community.
And I remember that Mrs. Palmer never tried to keep her GOP atmosphere away from her teaching.
She taught as a Republican.
And that was good.
That was fine.
And my mom and she, Mrs. Palmer, had a debate for three years.
And I carried the water.
- So they would debate.
- American history.
What do you recall about your own civics education that's lacking today?
- The honor of dissent.
The idea that you sought the truth in history and you didn't fool around about it.
You told the truth.
And that was that.
You don't stop at the water's edge and not commit to critical analysis.
If you're gonna talk about the Indians, you're gonna talk about the Indians and what we did to them and why, and what they did to each other.
Here's something I've not ever said out loud.
If I get a chance to create a curriculum for kids in grammar school, the first two years is not going to include any Europeans at all.
I want to spend at least a year on the physical creation of North America, whether it's the Siberian land bridge or Polynesia or wherever they came from.
And then to talk about their society before we showed up.
And we still do it.
I just did it just then when I said "we."
I still think of it like we're the Europeans.
I'm an American.
And I really am an American.
And I really love being an American.
That's not being a European.
And yet our story doesn't begin until the Europeans have arrived.
- Well, you have created a kind of curriculum, haven't you?
You launched in 2006 The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative to promote civics education, starting in fourth grade and lasting through high school.
How do you measure the success of your civics initiative?
- Well, first of all, it's gradual.
And this interview is part of it.
I'm building a constituency for the return and revival of civics in public schools.
That's what I want.
I want the people to remember that they are the sovereign power here.
And that means that literally "we the people," that phrase is a very clear indicator of who has sovereign power.
- A national report card was issued this week showing that history and civics scores dropped for eighth graders.
Fewer than one in four students is, quote, "proficient" in civics.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania says that, "A majority of Americans cannot name all three branches of government."
You have called the failure to teach the United States Constitution, quote, "suicidal."
And you say that everyone from our lawmakers to our parents to the media is responsible and, quote, "guilty of collusion in the crime of killing America."
Is that hyperbole or do you really think we're near the end?
- I think we're in the end game right now.
I think that we could let slip the greatest idea for governance ever devised and we won't even know that it happened.
We have no muscle memory of it.
50 years is a long time when it comes to how many generations have been without civic education.
- You write in your book, quote, "It is especially absurd to think our children could run this complex country without learning anything about its government first.
We can't fly a plane without training or practice medicine without attending medical school.
Then explain how we can send people to Congress who haven't first learned the workings of government or what powers the Congress has."
What will it take to elevate this issue?
And why aren't more people talking about this?
- So there was a generation of people who thought that they were doing the right thing by cutting participatory citizenship out of the goals of education.
And that's why I spend so much time describing what it was like before 1776 and what we did.
We were the first.
By allowing people to be educated, we were giving them a chance to create an intellectual resource pool that was second to none and was in fact the power behind the government.
And that's something we've given up without a thought.
We don't even think that it's valuable.
And yet it's everything.
- New citizens to this country study civics, and they have to pass a citizenship test, every single one, in order to become an American.
Why shouldn't every high school graduate have to pass the exact same citizenship test- - Yeah.
- [Hoover] That immigrants to our country pass?
- Yeah, absolutely.
I have no argument with it at all.
I have an argument with people who spend a lot of their time arguing with the fundamental of opposing views.
People confuse being exposed to an opposing view on any subject with being a traitor or with being a subversive.
And that's a kind of nonsense that is so immature that it's beyond the immaturity of normal adults.
- You're familiar with the controversy over school boards removing books that they consider "woke" from curricula and school libraries.
It's a new version of an old argument about where we draw the line between a parent's right and the government's responsibility, a parent's right to have a view about what their child is taught, and the government's responsibility to educate the public.
This was an issue when William F. Buckley Jr. had a debate about school textbooks on his program.
Take a look at the conversation they were having then.
- We feel it's very much of an indoctrination.
For instance, in the government books you over and over have little sentences about the need for government control, government regulation, government power and so forth, never any emphasis upon individualism.
The emphasis is always upon the government being the solution for every problem.
The schools are teaching values diametrically opposed to the values upon which our nation was founded.
- Whether it would follow that we would have a virtuous society if virtues were in fact taught is by no means established historically.
However, the question does arise whether you as a Texan, and Mrs. Gabler, have a right to object to what you allege is a monopoly in the opinions that are forwarded in the textbooks that are taught to your children and your grandchildren.
- We feel there's a virtual monopoly of all your values in all the textbooks regardless of the subject or grade.
- You know, there has been this push and pull over time that we've seen in the last 40 years about what materials should be taught.
How do you think about this?
- I think we're cowards.
Republicans send their children to schools hoping and praying that their children will come back Republicans.
And Democrats send their children to school urgently praying that their children will come back Democrats.
And they are confusing what to think with how to think.
And it sounds like a good thing, but the idea that a parent would walk into a public school and say, "I don't want my children exposed to opposing views," that's wrong.
That's wrong of the parent.
The parent is not serving the child's best interest.
And especially because we introduced a revolutionary idea to education.
That there would be no one left out of education.
That you could educate all, and that all would meant all.
And that's a huge difference with every empire and every nation that preceded us.
- I've heard you criticize the lack of civility in both parties.
You write, quote, "Currently, without examples of civility, Americans tend to treat opposing views as the positions of enemies instead of regarding the exchange of opposing views as normal.
Americans hate one another."
Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has called Democrats, "a party of pedophiles."
[Dreyfuss chuckling] Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says there is a, quote, "crime wave within the GOP."
Is the tone and tenor of our rhetoric, particularly our political rhetoric that has degraded, a result of a decline in civics education?
- Yes, it is.
It's also the addition of television and technology.
- So do people who are on television like you have a special responsibility to contribute to the rhetoric that we have and that we are experiencing in our country?
- Yes, they do.
- You've called Donald Trump disgusting, dangerous pig, and said that his celebrity supporters are whores.
- [Dreyfuss] I have said that?
Those were tweets from 2016.
Are they consistent with your views of civility now or would characterizing celebrities- - Oh, I see.
Am I breaking my own rule of civility by calling them whore?
- Yeah, or is that yeah, if- - Yeah, I suppose that I could be nailed for that.
I also think that if there was a culture that supported civility and we had reference to it, and we knew what it was- - Yeah.
- That I would've never have broken that, you know, crossed that line.
I did say to one guy on Fox.
He said to me, "What do you think of the president's military budget?"
And I said, "He's an idiot."
And he said, "You shouldn't say that about the president."
And I said, "Why not?"
And he said, "Because he's the president of the United States and you shouldn't, it's disrespectful to call him an idiot."
And I looked at him and I said, "Okay.
While we're on this show, I apologize.
I take it back.
I don't wanna offend you, so I will not call him an idiot while I'm on this show."
But to say that he's not an idiot is a stretch.
- Shifting gears entirely, starting in 2024, films will be required to meet new inclusion standards to be eligible for the Academy Awards for best picture.
They'll have to have a certain percentage of actors or crew from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
What do you think of these new inclusion standards for films?
- They make me vomit.
- Because this is an art form.
It's also a form of commerce, and it makes money.
But it's an art.
And no one should be telling me as an artist that I have to give in to the latest, most current idea of what morality is.
And what are we risking?
Are we really risking hurting people's feelings?
You can't legislate that.
And you have to let life be life.
And I'm sorry, I don't think that there is a minority or a majority in the country that has to be catered to like that.
You know, Laurence Olivier was the last white actor to play Othello, and he did it in 1965.
And he did it in blackface.
And he played a Black man brilliantly.
Am I being told that I will never have a chance to play a Black man?
Is someone else being told that if they're not Jewish, they shouldn't play the Merchant of Venice?
Are we crazy?
Do we not know that art is art?
This is so patronizing.
It's so thoughtless, and treating people like children.
- Do you think there's a difference between the question of representation and who is allowed to represent other groups?
For example, as you said, somebody representing the Merchant of Venice, and the case of blackface explicitly in this country given the history of slavery and the sensitivities around Black racism.
Do you think there's a difference between those?
- There shouldn't be.
- Because it's patronizing.
Because it says that we're so fragile that we can't have our feelings hurt.
We have to anticipate having our feelings hurt, our children's feelings.
We don't know how to stand up and bop the bully in the face.
- Do you think as we tell stories about our past, that there is a fuller version of our history that is perhaps more inclusive to the diversity of the country now?
- You know, I once worked for a guy who was making a film about the gangsters of the thirties.
And I said, "Why did you change this incident and that incident from the reality?
Because the reality was so much more interesting than what you created.
And by changing it you made it simple and smaller."
And I totally believe that you can make a great film or a great painting or a great opera out of the truth first.
And try that first.
And then if you can't do it, then make up some nonsense.
But don't tell me you can't do that, that history isn't that interesting.
- Final question.
In 2020, you said, quote, "I don't go to a lot of movies anymore because I don't like them.
They're not very good anymore.
And I probably have missed out on a bunch of really good films, but they're mostly crap."
Why do you think modern films are mostly crap?
- Because we're going through this strange need to not create, but to create sequels.
Sequels are death.
Sequels are like, well, there was a sequel to Jaws.
But there wasn't.
Never came close to the brilliance of the first Jaws.
And I'm very proud of that.
And very happy about it.
- And thank you for my phobia of sharks for my entire life.
- Me too.
I admit it.
I won't go in.
[chuckles] I'm the same way.
[Hoover laughing] But I tell you, it's one thing to be around a generation of people who went for it, who risked it, who said, "Let's go for it."
And they did.
And they made great films.
- Richard Dreyfuss, thank you for coming to Firing Line and thank you for sharing your views.
- Thanks a lot.
- [Announcer 1] Firing Line with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation, Jeffrey and Lisa Bewkes, The Beth and Ravenel Curry Foundation, Peter and Mary Kalikow, and by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button, The Center For The Study Of The International Economy Inc, The Pritzker Military Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, and The Marc Haas Foundation.
Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. [gentle music] [gentle music continues] [bright music] - [Announcer 2] You are watching PBS.