USA : Basic American Values and Beliefs (Part I)

From Goldenline (a Polish publication)



Sociologist Robin Williams attempted to offer a list of basic values in the United States:

Achievement, efficiency, material comfort, nationalism, equality and the supremacy of science and reason, over faith. 

There are certain ideals and values, rooted in the country’s history, which many Americans share.

There are certain ideals and values, rooted in the country’s history, which many Americans share. These are: FREEDOM, INDIVIDUALISM, PRAGMATISM, VOLUNTEERISM, MOBILITY, PATRIOTISM, PROGRESS, AMERICAN DREAM.

FREEDOM – Americans commonly regard their society as the freest and best in the world. Americans’ understanding of freedom is shaped by the Founding Fathers’ belief that all people are equal and that the role of the government is to protect each person’s basic “inalienable” rights. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights assures individual rights, including provisions for freedom of speech, press and religion. No one single church dominates or controls in the US, there is a religious diversity. 

INDIVIDUALISM – Americans’ notion of freedom focuses on the individual, and individualism has strong philosophical roots in America. Thomas Jefferson believed that a free individual’s identity should be held sacred and that his or her dignity and integrity should not be violated. America’s 19th c. Transcendentalists philosophers (Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller) argued for more individual self-reliance. Encouraged individuals to trust in themselves and their own consciences and to revolt against routine and habitual paths of conduct. Early 20th c. Pragmatists (James, Dewey) insisted upon the individual’s ability to control his or her fate. 

Individualism, understood not only as self-reliance but also as economic self-sufficiency, has been a central theme in American history (frontiers heroes who braved the wilderness alone, farmers whose success depended on their ability to confront the hardships of land and resourcefulness, the celebration of the small businessman who became a financial success on his own; individual proprietorship in business is still extolled as the ideal  “Self-made man” like B.Franklin.

IDEALIZING WHAT IS PRACTICAL - Many historians believe that most of the beliefs and values which are characteristically American emerged within the context of the frontier experience. Survival in the wilderness was best achieved to robust individualists. Survival experiences also explain the American tendency to idealize whatever is practical. In America what works is what counts. Inventiveness was necessary for survival. This “can-do” spirit is something Americans are proud of today. They like to think they are natural-born do-it-yourselfers (a variety of self-help books). VOLUNTEERISM – means people helping people through privately initiated, rather than government-sponsored, agencies. Volunteers are highly motivated people, workers who organize themselves and others to solve a particular community problem or meet an immediate social need, rather then waiting for someone else – usually the govt- to do it. The willingness to participate in such groups is so widespread that six out of ten Americans are members of a volunteer organization. Volunteerism reflects Americans’ optimistic pride in their ability to work out practical solutions themselves. Americans like to form associations of different kind (Tocqueville and Mead wrote about that). 

MOBILITY – Tocqueville in “Democracy in America” wrote: In the United States a man builds a house to spend his latter years in it, and he sells it before the roof is on: he plants a garden, and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing: he brings a field into tillage, and leaves other men to gather the crops: he embraces a profession and gives it up: he settles in a place which he soon afterwards leaves, to carry his changeable longings elsewhere.” American habit. As a nation of immigrants, Americans have shared from the beginning the assumption that the practical solution to a problem is to move elsewhere and make a fresh start. Mobility in America is not a sign of aimlessness but optimism (hoping to secure a better job or enjoy a warmer climate: after the WWII inner migration from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt). Moving about from place to place is such a common and accepted practice that most Americans take it for granted that they may live in four or fife cities during their lifetime. Americans hate to feel that buying a house might immobilize them forever. 

PATRIOTISM - Americans develop relatively little attachment to place (mobility). In this century, national pride has become generally stronger than regional pride. The prevalence of patriotic symbols: flags fly in suburban neighborhoods, bumper stickers announce “I’m proud to be American”, the national anthem is played at every sporting event. National holidays such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day intensify the sense of national identity. American patriotism is concentrated upon the particular historic event of the nation’s creation as a new start and upon the idea of freedom which inspired the nation’s beginnings. 

PROGRESS - directly associated with the idea of freedom is the ideal of progress. The nation’s progress has been measured by the taming of the frontier and industrial expansion. The desire to progress by making use of opportunities is important to Americans. In this immigrant society, progress is personally measured as family progress over generations. Many Americans can boast that with each succeeding generation since their first ancestors arrived, the family’s status has improved. The classic American family saga is all about progress. The great-grandparents, arriving from the Old World with nothing but the clothes on their backs, work hard and suffer poverty and alienation so that they can provide a good education for their children. The second generation, motivated by the same vision of the future and willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, pass these values to their children. The attainment of the vision of one’s grandparents is part of the American Dream.

AMERICAN DREAM – J.T.Adams in The Epic of America expressed the term as “the dream of a land in which life should be better, richer, and fuller for every man with opportunities for each according to his abilities and achievement”. It teaches Americans to believe that contentment can be reached through the virtues of thrift, hard work, family loyalty, and faith in free enterprise system. History: American Dream is not open to all. Segregation and discrimination are effective tools which have barred minorities from equal opportunities in all spheres. American Dream is based on people’s ability, provided they use enough effort, to reach any goal. 

• Values are subject to change as a society encounters distinctive pressures and strains. That is why now Americans place a high value on “national security” because of the external attacks, insecurity. / The 1980s saw a return to conservative family values and morals, as well as a renewal of national pride.

• Values may not always be upheld. The Bill of Rights, which guaranteed the freedoms of speech, the press, and religion, is one important expression of American national values. Yet even this historic document cannot be seen as defining a set of values that all Americans share. Beginning with Samuel Stouffer in the 1950s, sociologists have asked people whether these First Amendments rights should be extended to certain groups. While the right to speak or publish seems clearly established in the Bill of Rights, many Americans balk when asked if such privileges should be extended to atheists, communists, and a variety of others. Apart from this, the notion that America offers freedom for all has not always correspond to reality: the incosistency of black slavery in a society supposedly dedicated to freedom and equality plagued the nation from the very beginning. Reality continues to demonstrate that some social groups and individuals are not as free as others. Because of religious, racial, sex, or age discrimination some Americans have not enjoyed the same rights and opportunities as others.


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