Not so long ago, most Americans regarded the Fourth of July as "Independence Day," and called it that -- celebrating liberty and freedom, prizing independence above all. For the graduates of high school and college, Independence Day marks the breaking away from parents, of moving toward responsibility.
For many of us, it's a celebration mixed with more than a little concern. Where will this new independence take the young? What kind of adults will they become? Have we "done good" by them?
Have they been politically corrected and merely educated in soundbites and cliches by the megabyte so that they, as Sam Cooke famously sang, "don't know much about history." But not to worry. We've always known they're intelligent, and they may be smarter than we think. At least some of them.
The federal government wants more and more to tell us, by law and by bureaucratic regulation, what's good for us -- what to eat, what to spend our own money on, to whether and where to smoke a cigarette or eat a burger. When a senator asked Elena Kagan, the president's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, whether she believed Congress had the power "to tell people what to eat every day," she was stumped for an answer. The personal has become the political. The Founding Fathers are spinning.
But for an encouraging number of the young, maybe not. In a survey of 3,000 high school students by the Bill of Rights Institute, an Arlington, Va., based organization to educate young people in the ideas and ideals of the Founding Fathers, the top five heroes of the young are Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington and Thomas Paine. (Neither Elvis nor Michael Jackson made the cut.) The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the documents that inspired them most, and "perseverance" and "courage" were cited as the two civic values most essential to American citizenship.
These students understand what's expected of them and hold the important stuff as really important, even if they (like the rest of us) sometimes honor it in the breach. This essay exercise is one of the largest in the country, with more than 50,000 participants, 70 percent from public schools. Teacher and student winners earn awards up to $5,000 and trips to the nation's capital. Best of all the kids, many of whom had never had a class in "civics," demonstrate an unusual appreciation not only of the meaning of citizenship, but an understanding of the burdens of citizenship.
A 12th-grade prize essayist writes of the importance of personal accountability in preserving liberty. "Although the Founding Fathers created constitutional checks and balances to prevent loss of liberty through abuse of power," writes T.J. Cahill of Lansing, Mich., "they foresaw that precautions are useless if each American is not individually responsible. To preserve liberty, we must each embrace our founders' legacy of responsibility."
The politicians could learn from a 10th-grader who identifies courage, strength and wisdom as the three qualities essential to great leadership. "Courage, because many times you will stand alone. Strength, because while you move against the crowd people will try to knock you down. Wisdom, which varies for every situation, to know when to pick a fight and when to hold your tongue."
The students were required to show a specific American value reflected in a founding document, embodied in a figure of American history and finally in the essayist's life. This requirement reverses the glib cliche that "the personal is the political," the basis for the destructive notion that everyone is entitled to preferences based on sex or group identity, and instead emphasizes how the political requires personal duty, the revolutionary idea that animated the Founding Fathers.
"If citizens desire to maintain small government," writes Haley Shopp of Mansfield, Texas, "they must take responsibility to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them in a way that is completely independent from government. Recognizing a widespread need among my classmates, I have established and run a math-tutoring center at my school. In this way, I hope to take part in a system that is uniquely American: to take personal responsibility to fix a problem, instead of relying on government for the answers."
Writes David Rinder of Morganville, N.J.: "Independence and the ability to control one's own destiny are ideals held dear by Americans."
Now that's something to light a firecracker about on this Fourth of July. We're entitled to have a good one.