Richard Dreyfuss was far more activist than actor at a Branford College Master’s Tea on Monday, discussing the need for civics classes in American public schools.
Dreyfuss spoke to a crowd of roughly 80 students about the deterioration of the American form of government since the advent of television, especially during the Bush administration. Dreyfuss is best known for his Oscar-winning representation of an impoverished actor in the 1977 film, “The Goodbye Girl,” and for his portrayal of music teacher Glenn Holland in the 1995 film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
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While he has continued to appear in television and films over the past few years, Dreyfuss has recently become politically active on issues of privacy, democracy and individual accountability, all of which he mentioned during the course of his two-hour speech.
“There is a toxic partisanship [in this country] that is pervasive,” he said.
He explained that the current political situation stems from the advent of a culture of instantaneous communication — fueled by the prevalence of 24-hour news channels — and that serious thought and conscientious debate are no longer possible in this hostile environment. But despite his consternation, Dreyfuss said he still has faith in the American ideal.
“America means something in the world,” he said. “People come here because they can.”
Dreyfuss said the United States has only narrowly avoided self-destruction in the form of governmental “suicide.” The American public and the media have jointly created a subservient environment, he said, in which political debates surrounding the Constitution cease ever to become crises.
Esteban Tapetillo ’09 said he was persuaded by Dreyfuss’ logic and forceful presentation.
“This was a wonderful speech that made us aware of Bush’s current policies and how we are interfering with other nations when we have our own, more important, domestic problems,” Tapetillo said.
Dreyfuss proposed the reinstitution of the civics class as one immediate response to political degradation, stressing the necessity of teaching morals, logic and political process in public schools.
Though some students said they had expected a discourse on Dreyfuss’ personal film career or Hollywood in general, they were impressed by the progressive qualities of his political views.
“I really respected what he had to say,” Taylor Ritzel ’10 said. “He had a refreshing perspective on the issue of partisanship. His reassessment of government from the bottom up was an interesting approach.”
Still, others were disappointed by Dreyfuss’ marathon speech, which they said was at times ambling and disorganized.
“He was extremely passionate, but sometimes seemed confused,” Turner Smith ’09 said.
Dreyfuss serves as a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University.