Times are tough. We’re facing a lot of important issues in the United States and instead of thoughtful, serious discussions, many political leaders and commentators on television have resorted to angry talking points and name-calling.
Civil conversation seems to be an oxymoron.
But what if there really is common ground? What if we went back to basics and looked at the values that created this great nation?
For thirty years we have been explaining these American values to people from other countries. We’ve been describing what is so unique about the culture of the United States that allows us to take in people from all over the world and turn them into “Americans.”
When we first wrote American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture, we constructed a paradigm to explain six basic, traditional, cultural values of the United States. There are three pairs of values: three reasons why immigrants first came here (and still come today) and three prices paid to have these benefits.
The three pairs of values are:
- Individual Freedom and Self-Reliance
- Equality of Opportunity and Competition
- Material Wealth (or the American Dream) and Hard Work
1. The first settlers came for freedom from kings and governments, priests and churches, noblemen and aristocrats. To protect these freedoms, the founding fathers wrote a Constitution that divided the powers of government among the three branches, separated church and state, and forbade titles of nobility.
In this climate, individual freedom became our most important value. But there has been a price to be paid. If we are to be truly free, we must be self-reliant. If we rely on others, they have some power over us and may restrict our freedom.
2. The lack of a hereditary aristocracy in the United States encouraged equality of opportunity, a second value attracting immigrants. Americans don’t believe that everyone has to be equal, but everyone must have an equal opportunity in the society.
However, if everyone has an equal chance to succeed, than everyone has to compete for success. Competition is a strong value we learn early and practice throughout our lives.
3. The third reason people have come here is for a better life. Over time this value has become known as the American Dream—the belief that if you work hard, you can raise your standard of living and maybe even get rich.
The price for realizing that dream has always been hard work. But we have believed that you can create your own success by working hard. You can have a better life—if not for yourself, at least for your children.
So what is the state of these cultural values today?
Everyone still wants the benefit values—individual freedom, equality of opportunity and the American Dream. Indeed, we consider these to be our rights. But what about the other values that enable us to have these rights? Self-reliance, competition, and hard work? What about our responsibilities?
All six values are important. They form a system.
The values function together to create the very fabric of our society. Indeed, these six values are so tightly woven together that if any one of them is pulled out or even disturbed, the entire fabric is affected and may even start to come unraveled.
It is this fabric of cultural values that has defined who we are—the core belief that if people take responsibility for their lives and work hard, they will have the individual freedom to pursue their personal goals, with a good opportunity to compete for success.
We believe that it is time to take a fresh look at our American values and have a new, thoughtful, civil dialogue about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
It is important to remember that we are talking about cultural values, not moral values.
We believe that some of these critical cultural values may be under attack. So we’re launching Vintage American Ways to explore what’s happening to these precious values. How are they affecting our institutions, and indeed, our personal lives?
We invite you to join us on this important journey. Our site will have articles, blogs, interviews, suggested readings, and links to other sites we think you might find useful.
All opinions are welcome—we just ask that you remember that our goal is to foster civil conversation.
Listen to the audio
What do you think?