During his acting career, Richard Dreyfuss won an Academy Award and gained fame for such movies as "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." But he stopped working full time in the business nearly a decade ago to pursue his greatest role: civics education advocate.
"We do not teach our kids how to run this country anymore," Dreyfuss said Wednesday while giving the keynote speech at the San Diego County Bar Association's law week luncheon and celebration of community service. "That's a puzzle -- deliberately making the future [leaders] of the system ignorant of that system. That's an act of national suicide."
Dreyfuss, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1977 for his portrayal of a struggling actor in "The Goodbye Girl," shifted his focus in 2004 to getting lawmakers to renew an emphasis on civics education in American public classrooms.
He spent parts of four years as a research adviser at St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford in England studying the problem. He wanted to know the damage being done by the absence of teaching civics.
In 2009, he launched The Dreyfuss Initiative, a nonprofit, and has been traveling the country, talking to educators and politicians from both parties to help his cause.
"I, myself, am a pre-partisan American," Dreyfuss said. "I have not had one person disagree that civics is critically important to be taught to our young. I have been told, repeatedly, that this is as important a subject as any taught in school today, and more important than most."
He said it is important students learn what a political miracle the United States' system of governance truly is. He said they don't realize that before the founding fathers set out on their own that "98 percent of the human race [was] in shackles and darkness."
The Dreyfuss Initiative is pushing a curriculum that promotes "intellectual tools that allow all subjects covered in high schools to be connected by exercises that hone the utility of the mind."
Dreyfuss said it's important for children to develop an agile mind and to be "light on their intellectual feet."
The organization's civics curriculum also emphasizes critical analysis and reasoning through logic as well as exercises that include dissent, debate, civility, context and opposing views.
Dreyfuss has a kindred spirit in former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is also advocating for a reformed civics curriculum.
O'Connor founded the nonprofit organization iCivics, which is dedicated to reinvigorating civic learning through interactive and engaging learning resources.
Dreyfuss said he plans to invite O'Connor along as he visits each state legislature, to try to get them to approve new educational standards.
"Sandra Day O'Connor calls it the quiet crisis," Dreyfuss said. "I call this the most urgent crisis we've ever had, because our grandchildren have as little hope of living in the America that we have lived in than the man on the moon. We are having our birthright stolen right out from under us, right in broad daylight.
"We have to give our kids the tools they need to better learn about their country and to better understand why it is the greatest nation on earth. That means educating them properly."
At the end of his address, Dreyfuss asked the audience of lawyers for financial support as he embarks on his cross-country tour. He said he has been promoting the cause for free for the past seven years and is at the point where he needs help.
"You don't have the time to do what we must do, but I do," he said. "You pay for my travel expenses, and I will create the Ringling Brothers Lollapalooza of a train ride with FDR's train. And I will make this the most romantic and passionate cause in the history of the country."