On Campus

Oscar-winning actor takes on education

Richard Dreyfuss studied at Oxford, developing a curriculum for U.S. public schools

Of all the causes actors have chosen to champion, Richard Dreyfuss admits his passion lacks, well, a certain pizzazz: Civics.

“Don’t call it ‘civics’ because ‘civics’ is easily the most boring word in America,” Dreyfuss says. “Call it what it is: political power.”

Dreyfuss brings an actor’s dramatic pacing and a historian’s licks to his cause, erasing any notion that this lesson will be boring. He’s bombastic, predictably brash and yet professorial during a 90-minute interview in a bland hotel suite in this seaport, where he was honoured at a film festival earlier this year.

Kicked out of college for confronting a professor who criticized Marlon Brando’s performance in “Julius Caesar,” Dreyfuss recently studied at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford to develop a curriculum for U.S. public schools.

Called The Dreyfuss Initiative, the curriculum would use scholarly presentations in videos and the Oscar-winning actor “as a storyteller, to engage, enlighten and empower students of all ages in an entertaining way,” according to an outline. Dreyfuss said he would work with civic and educational groups to promote the teaching tools.

While the program has not been used in any classroom yet, Dreyfuss has launched a fundraising campaign to produce videos and the curriculum.

“I’ve got a very simple thing here,” Dreyfuss said. “I’ve got a nonprofit initiative to get K-12 grades back to civics, to give our children real-world knowledge and hopefully wisdom about how to run this complex governance system. That’s it. That’s enough.”

These days, Dreyfuss devotes most of his public appearances addressing the origins of our nation and lamenting a citizenry that he believes has lost its way.

“I stopped defining myself as an actor and I went to Oxford because I believe that America is a miracle,” Dreyfuss said. “And I think that there is nothing easier in the world than for us to lose this miracle and to be reduced to words on paper.”

Dreyfuss fears just that – that future generations will view our freedoms as a fairy tale.

“It’ll break my heart, and it should break yours,” he said.

Dreyfuss, 61, blames a lack of civil discourse, the din of television and any number of distractions for moving us away from understanding our origins as a nation.

Dreyfuss is comfortable discussing the sweep of human history, but he’s especially drawn to the drama of the Civil War.

In March, he was the star attraction at a Washington, D.C., event for the Civil War Preservation Trust, which annually releases a report on endangered battlefields. His interest in the Civil War goes way back, and he was recruited as a re-enactor at the battle of Cedar Creek, in northern Virginia, while filming “What About Bob?,” which was set at New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee but filmed at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia.

Dreyfuss won an Oscar at 29 for “The Goodbye Girl,” making him then the youngest male lead to win the trophy. He said the honour wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

“I was too young,” he said. “I didn’t know until later that I am built to be in pursuit. I am not built to have achieved. I’m happiest when I’m on the hunt.”

– The Canadian Press

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