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updated: 1/25/2011 4:31 PM

Penick: Civics lessons key to our nation's future

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If you ask me, it's never too late -- or too early -- to be civic-minded.

Listening to State Rep. Darlene Senger address a group of roughly 40 residents at the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation January meeting, I wondered what turns some of us into political junkies, or "geeks" as some folks like to call us? Why do others shriek (or yawn) at the sheer mention of the state legislature, city council or school board meetings.

A couple weeks ago, my ears perked when I heard actor Richard Dreyfuss mentioned in a news report. Since the 1970s, he's starred in some of my favorite movies -- "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Mr. Holland's Opus."

In "Close Encounters," Dreyfuss hit home because the movie was set in Muncie, Ind., where I grew up. The first time I saw the film back in 1977, I noted the attention to detail in portraying Muncie as the college town it is with Ball State University memorabilia.

In one scene, a carton of Miller's milk sat on the kitchen table. Back then, in nonfiction Muncie, Miller's Milk Houses not only sold its brand of milk and cottage cheese, the retail stores with drive-up window service sold the best peppermint candy ice cream in Indiana. Sorry to digress.

Life went on as I followed Dreyfuss' Academy Award-winning ("The Goodbye Girl") career. With his success came political activism. To use his words, he was "a member of a gaggle of Hollywood liberals," quite contrary to my core values.

But in the recent news, this actor called himself a "libbo-conservo-raddo-middle-of-the-roado (and who knows how to spell it!) and I connected with his passion to promote teaching American history, civics and citizenship -- subjects he thinks we've inadequately, if at all, taught our children in school.

Dreyfuss expressed his desire to improve critical thinking and reasoning by engaging in conversation, listening and debate. He thinks we've done a lousy job of educating about the struggles, risks and courage it's taken to build a nation of freedoms.

He contends civics must be taught to prepare young people to take a place in our democratic Republic for the future.

Dreyfuss especially attracted my attention when he explained his plan to put together a panel of leaders from the Navy, Girl Scouts and Rotary with representatives from all political philosophies. He says the present is unlike any other time in our country's 235 years. No matter what political persuasion, folks are "anxious and uneasy" about the future of our great nation.

He expressed his concern that so few people have read the U.S. Constitution.

He reminded viewers that the verbs in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution show action, stating the foundation of the Constitution's fundamental purposes and guiding principles. I remembered the words "to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare," a portion of the Preamble oftentimes misquoted.

Dreyfuss emphatically talked about the first part of the Preamble that clearly speaks to the common man, as our nation was created by the people for the people.

Anyway, Dreyfuss arranged his panel discussion for Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Day.

I recalled the date was also the 305th anniversary of Ben Franklin's birthday. The two-hour video is available at Dreyfuss titled the forum "It's Time to Talk: The National Conversation of Revitalizing America's Civic Culture."

If you're a news and political junkie, you'll likely recognize some panelists as newspaper columnists and pundits on C-SPAN and other news roundtables. The panel engaged listeners in their spirited conversation with divergent points of view, always with civility.

I watched it once and I'll watch it again.

"We must put civics back in the hands of all Americans," said Dreyfuss. "…To teach our kids how to run our country before they are called upon to run our country … if we don't, someone else will run the country."

Municipalities in Illinois will hold elections on April 5. Now is the time to pay attention to hopefuls who want to serve on school boards, city councils and park district commissions. Those candidates will set public policy and approve budgets that impact our quality of life.

Citing Hamlet, Dreyfuss urged everyone to "be prepared."

Again, I found wisdom in Ben Franklin's words. "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."