Self-Reliance as an American Basic Value

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Self-reliance is especially valued by Americans. It is seen as a requirement to obtain and secure individual freedom. It means that people don’t depend on their family, the government or any organizations. Americans believe they should take care of themselves and solve their own problems. In addition, individuals believe that they should be financially and emotionally self-reliant to keep their freedom. To get into mainstream of American life, which means to have power and/or respect, individuals should be independent. Otherwise they will lose their freedom or the respect of other people. Of course charity or getting help and support from family and government is allowed but many people think what such individual is bad for American character and people must rely on themselves.

This belief of self-reliance in Americans today is traditional basic American value. A long time ago, this value was always supported by many philosophers. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life” (Schopenhauer as Educator, 1873). Similarly, Emerson admonishes that “imitation is suicide” and counsels: “The power which resides in [each person] is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” (Self-reliance, 1904). This strong belief in self-reliance of Americans may be difficult to understand, but deep inside it is very important. Most Americans can easily identify with this value because for them freedom is like a desire and right of each individual to be able to control their own destiny.

To illustrate that intense belief, you can see it in the way Americans treat their children. They have been trained since very early in their lives to consider themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations in life and their own destinies. They have not been trained to see themselves as members of a close-knit, tightly interdependent family, religious group, tribe, nation, or other collectivity. Even very young children are given opportunities to make their own choices and express their opinions. Parents will ask a one-year-old child what color balloon he or she wants, which candy bar he or she would prefer, or whether he or she wants to sit next to mommy or daddy. The child’s preference will normally be accommodated. In brief, through this process, Americans see themselves as separate human beings who have their own opinions and who are responsible for their own decisions.

Indeed, in American child-rearing manuals (such as Dr. Benjamin Spook’s famous Child and Baby Care), it is stated that the parents’ objective in raising a child is to create a responsible, self-reliant individual. It means that by the age of 18 or so, he or she is ready to move out of the parents’ house and make his or her own way in life. Americans take this advice so seriously that a person beyond the age of about 20 who is still living at home with his or her parents may be thought to be “immature”, “tied to the mother’s apron strings” or otherwise unable to lead a normal, independent life.

Nevertheless, moving out of their parents’ house and then living their own lives is not the only way to demonstrate that they are self-reliant. In fact, it is not unusual for Americans who are beyond the age of about 22 and who are still living with their parents to pay their parents for room and board. Elderly parents living with their grown children may do likewise. Paying for room and board is a way of showing independence, self-reliance, and responsibility for oneself. On the other hand, many Americans who think they are really self-reliant do not display the degree of respect for their parents that people in more traditional or family-oriented societies commonly display. They have the conception that it was a sort of historical or biological accident that put them in the hands of particular parents, that the parents fulfilled their responsibilities to tile children while the children were young, and now that the children have reached “the age of independence”, the close child-parent tie is loosened, if not broken.

Another problem is that Americans are trained to conceive of themselves as separate in-dividuals, so they assume everyone else in the world is too. When they encounter a person from abroad who seems to them excessively concerned with the opinions of parents, with following traditions, or with fulfilling obligations to others, they assume that the person feels trapped or is weak, indecisive, or “overly dependent”. They assume all people must resent being in situations where they are not “free to make up their own minds”. Furthermore, they assume that after living for a time in the United States people will come to feel liberated from constraints arising outside themselves and will be grateful for the opportunity to “do their own thing” and “have it their own way”.

This concept of themselves as individual decision-makers blinds at least some Americans to the fact that they share a culture with each other. They have the idea, as mentioned above, that they have independently made up their own minds about the values and assumptions they hold. The notion that social factors outside themselves have made them “Just like everyone else” in important ways offends their sense of dignity. Americans, then, consider the ideal person to be an individualistic, self-reliant, independent person. They assume, in-correctly, that people from elsewhere share this value and this self-concept. In the degree to which they glorify “the individual” who stands alone and makes his or her own decisions, Americans are quite distinctive.

By contrast, people from many other cultures regard some of the behavior Americans legitimize by the label “self-reliance” to be self-centered and lacking in consideration for others. But if foreigners understand the degree to which Americans are imbued with the notion that the free, self-reliant individual is the ideal kind of human being, they will be able to understand many aspects of American behaviors and thinking that otherwise might not make sense. A very few of the many possible examples: Americans see as heroes those individuals who “stand out from the crowd” by doing something first, longest, most often, or otherwise “best”. Examples are aviators Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart. Moreover, Americans admire people who have overcome adverse circumstances (for instance, poverty or a physical handicap) and “succeeded” in life. Black educator Booker T. Washington is one example; the blind and deaf author and lecturer Helen Keller is another.

Sadly, although Americans used to be known for ingenuity and self-reliance, this ethic has been diminishing over time. Modern America, with its enervating comforts — including cosseting parents — and present-minded education that produces cultural amnesia. Many children are more and more passive so childhood obesity has increased 500 percent in five decades. For “the most medicated generation of youth in history,” sales of ADHD drugs have increased 8 percent a year since 2010. Additionally, research shows that teenage texters exhibit addictive, sleep-depriving behaviors akin to those of habit-denying addictive gamblers. Teenagers clutching their devices “are spending nearly two-thirds of their waking hours with their eyes tied down and bodies stationary.” Adolescents spending scores of hours a week on screen time with their devices acquire “a zombie-like passivity” that saps their “agency.” This makes them susceptible to perpetual adolescence, and ill-suited to the velocity of life in an accelerating world of shorter job durations and the necessity of perpetual learning. Five million Americans, many of them low-skilled young men, play 45 hours of video games per week. Over the last few decades, many Americans have increasingly lost the kind of practical knowledge that they once possessed.

So how to rebuild self-reliance in a changing world? The first priority is innovation in education. American adults’ lives were full of opportunities to learn self-reliance, and they were encouraged to go out and make their marks on the world. They learned from their teachers, and their study efforts became good grades. They learned from their encouraging parents, and took bold steps in their lives. Their histories were full of innovators and self-starters who had invented, researched, created and changed the world. It seems they learn to be self-reliant when those around them model that trait for them and make sure they understand the importance of it. Therefore, the greatest gift they can give to the future is a self-reliant population who is equipped to learn and grow with their fast paced environment, and ready to embrace change as it comes. In short, education will help Americans maintain self-reliance which was once an integral part of their character and culture.

To summarize, self-reliance is one of the six basic American cultural values which distinguish America from all others. Self-reliance is rooted in a fundamental belief that you can change your circumstances. That what you do and how you do it will affect your future. If you want to be perfectly free, you have to rely on yourself and achieve both financial and emotional independence.

Cite this paper

Self-Reliance as an American Basic Value. (2020, Oct 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/self-reliance-as-an-american-basic-value/

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