This Fourth of July, young Americans may not rally around liberty and freedom

A survey of high school essays on "being an American" reveals a focus on other civic values – ones that may reflect the current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against Al Qaeda.

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    People watch fireworks near the Washington Monument on the National Mall as part of the Fourth July celebrations in 2009.
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The Fourth of July is the best holiday for Americans to take stock of the civic values most important to them. And which ones might be the most popular for today's citizens? Liberty, freedom, or equality?

For young Americans, none of the above.

According to a survey of nearly 3,000 essays written by high school students for the Bill of Rights Institute on the topic of "Being an American," citizenship is best defined by the values of perseverance and courage.

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Those qualities, of course, may simply reflect a young person's view of their own struggles. After all, kids need to learn gumption and grit to cope with life's setbacks. And they may not understand that liberty and freedom are goals – whose reality in the US they could be taking for granted – while courage and perseverance are only a means to those goals.

But their choices could also reflect their generation's experience of the long American struggle against Al Qaeda and of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For them, earlier wars that defended democracy are known mainly through movies and books.

In the student essays, liberty is identified in only 8 percent compared to a 15 percent favorability for perseverance and courage.

Another telling detail from the survey: A majority of students in 10th grade ranks Lincoln above Jefferson as a hero. Does that mean they see the Civil War as a model for the current wars?

More than 50,000 students submitted the essays, and the top 3,000 were analyzed by Social Dynamics for the Bill of Rights Institute, with financial help from Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr.

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