That History Day Guy

June 13, 2007

Preserving the Republic without Working Blue

Filed under: National Contest,Uncategorized — historydayguy @ 4:55 am

Tonight Richard Dreyfus spoke to a “Select group” of National History Day students, younger siblings, grandparents and others at the University of Maryland.

This event had been billed as a town hall event and State coordinators were told only days before the contest that we were to attend.

Each state was given 10 golden tickets. We went around pretending to be Charlie from the Chocolate factory. We joked about if the kids would even know who Richard Dreyfus was, and I scoffed that he was coming only for the free sandwiches.

Tobi sent me an email saying that a friend of hers who is a self effused history snob had heard that he had given up acting to become a full time advocate for civics education and had even written a book. So, perhaps this was legit and he wasn’t just coming for sandwiches. I have to say I loved him in his performances in What About Bob and Kripindorffs Tribe. Surely a man who can create this kind of art is someone who should pontificate to our children on the merits of civics education and the dangers faced by a democracy too complacent to rise up and act with the responsibility required of self-governance. Maybe he had really quit acting, and not as I initially thought, had acting quit him…

So it began. Cathy, always wonderful, with a keen understanding of the students, introduced the 07 HD kids to Dick. He looked vaguely scholarly on stage. He had khakis, a Tweed coat, an empty jumbo Iced Late and the Dreyfus facial hair.

He began the first part of his speech (it was not to be a town meeting. As I will demonstrate, it was more of a hostage situation than a salon of ideas) with the basic idea that with the foundation of the United States we had broken a “10,0000 year curse” of class. He praised our founders and our nation for developing a system where those with luck, guts, and hard work could rise up and better themselves and escape the “curse.” He talked about the imperfect democracy that is the American system but noted that he was a kind of guy that kisses the tar-mack upon returning home ( there is medicine for this Dick) and though we are imperfect, we offer such great promise to the world and that we are one of only a handful of significant nations ( Sorry Montenegro!)

He then talked of the need to be vigilant to preserve our fundamental civil rights and launched into a host of very real threats taking place that could make those in the future simply “chuckle” at the idea that there once existed a system of guarantee for an individuals self expression, religion and pursuit of happiness.

Now, I am not one to get in the way of anyone’s pursuit of happiness, but it was roughly this time when Dick dropped his first F Bomb. He had already hit us with some PG talk but I think the audience was tolerant based on his celebrity and he was up to then making valid points. But after the initial F bomb it did not stop.

We were hit with graphic language from the Television show Sex in the City . Dick relayed how shocked he had been to hear the ladies discussing oral sex right there in his living room where he was sharing an evening with his children. ( Am I the only one who sees the irony in the fact that he is a Hollywood actor who could not anticipate the content of a TV show which might be inappropriate for all the kids?)

We lost a few then but no great exodus and Dick recovered and continued his call for the upholding of our civil liberties. People looked around astonished, while some kids giggled to themselves, or whispered at the funny old man who was so free with the potty mouth.

Then he laid the big one on us. I am not sure why this one brought down the house, but it did. Again in regards to speech he hit us with X rated language and decided to “blow our minds” by using language that even Snoop Dog would have the sense not to use in front of sixth graders.

People left. Not only did they leave, but one man, exercising his free speech said to Mr. Dreyfus that his language was “unforgivable.” The man was hurt. This was a father who had chosen his television channel. He had the care and foresight not to have taken his daughter to a place where he would have to worry about images, or language, or civility. He had expected his child to be enlightened and perhaps inspired. He had not chosen Sex in the City for his child to watch, He was expecting the History Chanel.

Dick proceeded to kind of do a “you can’t handle the truth” with his mike and stage presence. People in the audience echoed the man’s concern by saying there “were young children in the audience.” His response was he was choosing to speak plainly in the language that children were already using with one another.

I was sick. Mr. Dryfuss’ motivations are a mystery to me. I am, for better or worse, a born skeptic. I feared Dick had come looking for a bully pullpit and adulation. That perhaps he may not even be fully present in mind, and worst of all truly unaware of who he was speaking to.

Cathy Gorn told her judges the other day “that it is not quality of presentation but clarity.” That our students should strive for greatness, but if they get the right ideas along the way, then they have accomplished their goals. In Mr Dryfuss’ speech there was not clarity. He muddled the debate. He tore down important evidence by throwing inflammatory language into a situation where it was simply inappropriate.

The balance of civil rights involves a system of respect. As parents and teachers, how we beat our chests and rack our brains to find ways to help our students understand the importance of acting with civility, respect, and peaceful action. History Day in particular asks of our students to raise discussion, ask questions, challenge and think criticaly. It is so clear that our students have a clear understanding of the living nature of history, the responsibility of the individual to act virtuously in the face of tragedy and injustice, and work to triumph in a system that is fraught with inequities.

It is in the “doing” of History Day that students are indoctrinated into a system of presenting to the world our civic duties of remembering and understanding the complexties of what makes our nation so great. They have no need of instruction or having their minds blown by a man who is paraded out as a scholar, but is little more than an aging ham with a dwindling audience.

I have no desire to stifle Mr. Dryfuss. He says he speaks in public as he does in private. It is his right to do so. But using his words, we can turn the channel. History Day is our house. We come to it with certain expectations. We require those who participate to meet expectations of poise, scholarship and civility. We are preparing an Army of young Americans who will go into the world “and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

So please, have no fear Mr Dryfuss. Those of us working with these children, the real celebrities, unarmed with Oscars and appearances on Bill Mahr will continue the good fight. You need not worry yourself. The Republic is safe in our hands. And all this without working blue.



  1. I find it interesting that Mr. Dreyfuss spoke for almost 2 hours straight and the only thing that anyone seems to have taken away from it is that spat over his usage of the “f-word” 3 or 4 times. “Mr. Holland’s Expletives”, indeed- wasn’t there a message beyond that?

    Oh, and I also think it was a woman who first commented on his language.

    Anyway, looking forward to another fun-filled year of NHD!


    Comment by allegra — June 20, 2007 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

  2. Love the blog, History Day Guy!

    I wondered why Dreyfuss would be coming to NHD, but I subsequently found out that he has done a lot to aid in historical presrvation efforts. All my friends with the Park Service have all commented on efforts he’s been involved with to help advance the work being done at several battlefields. So he has some “street cred” with at least some of the folks on the front lines.

    I agreed with a lot of what he had to say; as a professor of journalism and mass comm, I talk with my students about the media’s complicit role in distracting and dumbing-down the democratic process. It’s really a scary thing.

    Unfortunately, Dreyfuss’s language got in the way of his message. While neither my daughter nor I were offended, I do think it was inappropriate for the venue. (My daughter did agree with Dreyfuss’s statement that he was just using language most kids use with each other–“I hear that at school all the time,” she told me), I did respect the fact that he didn’t talk down to the students, though–even if he could’ve been clearer and more concise.

    Comment by CWMackowski — June 21, 2007 @ 3:40 am | Reply

  3. I was sitting right behind the guy who called out to Dreyfuss saying that his “language was unforgivable,” and I, too, felt uncomfortable hearing these words in the presence of younger school kids. I spent over 30 years in public education, and while Dreyfuss claimed that he was speaking in the language of teens (and, for the most part, he was right), not all teens use language this explicit (my 14-year-old daughter simply thinks it’s stupid)and Dreyfuss is no longer a teen. He knows better. My reaction to the kids I was with, none of whom walked out, by the way, was that it was too bad the message was clouded by the messenger. That said, while you were accurate reporting the reaction of some of tghe audience, you neglected to mention the overwhelming applause from the kids in support of Dreyfuss. The audience was hardly unified in its reaction. Let’s tell both sides.

    Comment by D. Pearlman — July 20, 2007 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

  4. That is what the comments are for. Dryfuss is still a Dryfuss.

    Comment by historydayguy — August 7, 2007 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

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