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Law Day Program with Richard Dreyfuss

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The Law Library of Congress was fortunate to host citizen activist Richard Dreyfuss as our speaker for this year’s Law Day program.  Mr. Dreyfuss founded The Dreyfuss Initiative in 2010 with the aim of helping to ensure that today’s children learn how our government works and as adults are prepared to participate in that government.

Richard Dreyfuss and David Mao (Library of Congress photos /Abby Brack)

Mr. Dreyfuss was introduced by David Mao, Law Librarian of Congress, who spoke briefly about the work of the Law Library in sustaining and preserving our collection of five million items.  David also spoke about Law Day and how this day celebrates and promotes the rule of law.  Civics education is of key importance in maintaining and enhancing the rule of law in a country, and Mr. Dreyfuss’ commitment to teaching kids about our government made him a great choice for speaker at our Law Day program.

Mr. Dreyfuss began by speaking about history — what history is and what it is not.  He noted that even science fiction or alternate history can help us to think about and analyze what happened in the past.  He stated that teaching children about particular rulers or requiring students to memorize dates, does not teach history.  History is subject to hundreds of different interpretations.  You can see this in the microcosm of the family where any family story may be told differently due to the various perspectives of the people telling the story.

Mr. Dreyfuss spoke of how the people of England did not write out their constitution but the people of America did, which he said was naïve, arrogant and brave.  Because we have a written constitution and bill of rights the world knows when we have gotten it wrong, but we also have the mechanisms to correct our course.  Until recently, he said, the United States earned the title of being a “good guy.”

Mr. Dreyfuss made interesting points about how art reflects society itself, and how people in the audience of a theater watches to see their own yearnings reflected back to them from the stage.  He believes that current films show nothing but teenage angst and science fiction worlds.  He affirmed that we need to anchor art back to where it belongs.  He spoke of his lifelong passion for acting, but said that when he was 12 he promised himself that he would retire at 50 and devote himself to something he loved just as much: his country.  He said that he did not come from a privileged family but one which had known hardship: his great aunt was killed in Tsarist Russia;  his grandmother had witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and been a secretary to Eugene Deb.  The cause he is currently devoting himself to is that of civics education.

Library of Congress photos /Abby Brack

Mr. Dreyfuss spoke of his views about the accelerated decay of values in this country and the inability to come to an agreement about what the mandate of public education should be.  He asserted that the mandate should be the development of an agile and mobile mind — able to move with confidence from one subject to another.  This is education as laid out by modern thinkers such as Howard Gardner of Harvard and by the ancient Greeks.  The sign of a mature mind, he said, should be the ability to say “I don’t know ” and to change one’s mind.  He believes that we should not ask people to stand for ideas that are wrong and go down with the Titanic.  However, he considers that we do not see this ability in our children today.

Mr. Dreyfuss spoke about some of the background and context for the U.S. Constitution coming into existence and for the development of civics education in this country.  For hundreds of years, he said, education was the preserve of the aristocracy and even during the Enlightenment period the pace of change in Europe was glacial.  However, change was accelerated in the New World.  We fought for the right to be treated as equals and, when the British conceded defeat, a new order was established which was not based on bloodlines or family connections.  He made the point that we wrote the Constitution not to set out different classes from each other but to lay out the shared responsibilities.  This country shared with the world what it had done by memorializing its vision in writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights; we fixed it to the walls and put our names on it – all acts of great bravery.  Americans were encouraged to be more than the sum of our parts.  We learned the phrase “checks and balances,” which reiterates that unfair advantages are not acceptable.  He said that we invited others into this better world where we offered mobility of mind and spirit.  The great immigration waves of the 19th and 20th centuries were moments in our history when people were coming to America and not to Norway or Togo. Few nations were prosperous even during the Enlightenment, he said, but the Enlightenment triumphed here over fundamentalism and superstition.  People came to America because we had achieved a political miracle, created a safe haven and offered a second chance.

Mr. Dreyfuss said that the only time we have for imparting our values is when our kids are in school.  We need to teach them about the outrageous, arbitrary history of the world and the example the United States set; and we need to challenge the students to imagine a world without the United States.  The world, he said, was on a very different course, where people like Hitler may have been normal.  But he feels that we have to work at what we created in order to maintain that example.  He referred to Abraham Lincoln saying that no one will beat us but ourselves.  Mr. Dreyfuss emphasized that the War of Independence was a revolutionary war and people need to better understand that and what the American revolution was about.  The war was revolutionary, he said, because it offered a legal code that stated that no king was above everyone else.  The European powers at the time were against this idea.  He compared our revolution to the attacks and criticisms by other European countries when the French published the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  He said that the United States offered an operating manual for the mobile mind and represented a threat to all the “haves” of the world.

Democracy, according to Mr. Dreyfuss, is based on trust, but he said that this trust is now apparently lacking because we see those who enter public service as crooks.  He said that politics is not a commodity nor is it news, and that we need a firewall to separate money and technology from politics.  He expressed the view that the founding fathers believed that the best way to protect religion was to protect a variety of religions, and that this was also the best way to protect speech and a free press.  He feels that we need to teach our children about the realities of politics.  In particular, he said, a republican democracy has been defined as the willingness to share space with those with whom we disagree.  But he feels that this has been morphed out of shape by the influence of money in politics.  He is concerned that we are now living in a world without common sense and that we will be the generation that gets an “F” in handing on the American Dream to our children.

Richard Dreyfuss speaking with Law Library staff, Liah Caravalho and Clifton Brown (Library of Congress photos /Abby Brack)

Mr. Dreyfuss wants us to start to address this issue by asking first, what do we need?  He thinks that we need to set up clubs, attended by nerds like himself, which would have no biases.  He declared that we are all citizens; and as such we, are the solution to our problems.  In particular, Mr. Dreyfuss believes that we need to create a society where people can disagree with each other – a society based on the principles found in the noble preamble to the Constitution.

We thank Mr. Dreyfuss for a very engaging and thought-provoking discussion, and for sharing his views about the intersections between history, society, law, politics, and education.

Update: The event video was added below.

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