Our Kids’ Earth: How did you get your kids outside?

Earth Day April 22 with planet from spaceThis week is Earth Week, so I want to ask: How are we doing teaching the next generation to care for the earth?

As it turns out, our kids have what Richard Louv calls a “nature-deficit disorder”—increasingly disconnected from the natural world. There’s a big problem even getting kids outdoors. Oh, they care about the earth in some abstract way, but actually getting them outdoors? That’s the first challenge!

There’s a lot of evidence to support the nature-deficit disorder argument. A Nature Conservancy survey found that 88% of American youth spend time online every day—far more than the 58% who say they do homework or study every day. Yet far fewer do anything outdoors, like hiking, fishing, or even visiting a park. But when youth have a meaningful experience outdoors, they are more likely to value nature and feel empowered to improve the environment.


Here’s how my wife and I made the outdoors a part of our family life. It began when our son was just five years old and we felt we needed more adventure in our lives. Sailing had been a passion that we put on hold during his infancy and first years. We made a conscious decision to purchase a used sailboat and set sail on the Great Lakes every summer. A part of the decision was more than adventure—we saw, even at his tender age, that he was easily hooked on electronics. Sailing in wilderness waters, anchoring without another boat in sight, fishing, hiking, swimming, camp fires—all became a part of our lives.

And, we’ve had a few harrowing adventures, too! One I recounted on OurValues.org—a time when we were stranded in the Canadian wilderness and a stranger came to our rescue.


This week, share your pictures and ideas on your favorite social media and use the hash tag we created: #OurKidsEarth

How do you (or did you) get your kids outdoors?
What ideas work for you?
What do your kids love about being outdoors that could help other parents?

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The Idea of America: Do you have a “democratic mind”?


CLICK this Colonial Williamsburg graphic to learn more about the group’s educational program.

What’s a democratic mind?

It’s not an allegiance to a particular political party. It’s “the ability to hold, concurrently, two seemingly contradictory ideals and see both as valuable and essential,” write the authors of The Idea of America (IOA). Do you agree?

The contradictory ideals are the value tension we’ve considered all week. After introducing The Colonial Williamsburg Idea of America project, we considered law vs. ethics, freedom vs. equality, and common wealth vs. private wealth. Today, we conclude with the fourth tension—unity vs. diversity—and update you on plans to bring The Idea of America to thousands of Americans across the country.

Unity is the shared sense that we are one nation.

Diversity is the celebration of all our differences—“not just race and ethnicity and gender,” write the IOA authors, “but of values, beliefs, and thoughts … The quest for cultural unity is inconsistent with democracy if it does not also recognize the rich diversity of individuals.”

The tension between unity and diversity reveals itself in many ways that have been covered on OurValues.org: immigration, religious freedom, same-sex marriage, and the changing composition of the population—just to name a few.


The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is developing a program for adults based on the Idea of America project. The Foundation has a rich tradition of educational programs, many aimed at elementary, middle school, and high school students. Now, the Foundation is developed workshops for adults with the goal of over 1,000 workshops around the country. The goal is to wrestle with the value tensions—and hone the democratic mind.

Do you agree or disagree that the quest for cultural unity is inconsistent with democracy?
Which of the four value tensions is the most challenging?
Do you have a “democratic mind”?

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Idea of America: “You didn’t build that!”


CLICK the graphic to see the National Priorities Project report.

“You didn’t build that!” is a phrase from a campaign speech Obama made in his run against Mitt Romney. Taken out of context (as it was), the phrase appears to be an attack on private enterprise and private wealth. What Obama was trying to say was that private wealth depends on common wealth—and vice versa.

QUESTION: Do you recall which politician made this point much more effectively?

ANSWER: Elizabeth Warren, now the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, said it much better in remarks she made in 2011. Her remarks capture the tension between private wealth and common wealth:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”

A video of Warren’s remarks went viral. Liberals applauded her defense of progressive economics; conservatives blasted it.

The tension between private wealth versus common wealth is one of the four tensions in America society discussed in The Idea of America. As the book’s authors put it, “Just as the community is nothing without individuals, the wealth of the individual is nothing without the context of community.”

QUESTION: Do you know where your taxes go?

That’s another way to look at the relationships between private wealth and common wealth. A good chunk of the taxes you paid yesterday to Uncle Sam will be returned as common wealth—investments in transportation, housing, energy and environment, science, and so on. The single biggest chunk—27 cents of your tax dollar—goes for military expenses, according to National Priorities, followed by Medicare and health (26.5 cents).

When you first heard “You didn’t build that!” what was your reaction?
Should the government raise taxes on private wealth to fund more common wealth?

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The Idea of America: Taxes versus freedom?

Colonial Williamsburg Stamp Act page

CLICK this image to visit the Colonial Williamsburg website where you can learn about America’s first explosive dispute over taxation.

Today is Tax Day in America—a perfect time to bring up the tension between freedom and equality.

The tension was represented precisely by U.S. Supreme Court Louis Brandeis, who once said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” Brandeis lived at a time of vast economic inequality.

Today, economic inequality is also at record levels. Do we have to choose between equality and economic freedom?

Freedom versus equality is one of the four value tensions described in The Colonial Williamsburg Idea of America project. The basic idea is that extreme economic freedom typically results in extreme inequality. On OurValues.org, we’ve covered this tension in various ways, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. (You can use the Google search function—top-right of this screen—to search for various OurValue.org columns on these topics.)

Restricting unbridled economic freedom can reduce inequality. But how to do that is the rub. Should we tax the rich and redistribute their wealth to the poor?

How about a novel idea: Instead of taxing the rich, tax inequality itself. This solution was proposed in 2011 by Ian Ayres and Aaron S. Edlin in a New York Times Op-Ed. Their idea focuses on what they call the “Brandies Ratio”—“the ratio of the average income of the nation’s richest 1 percent to the median household income.” Inequality should be held to the ratio of 36 to 1: the incomes of the top 1% percent should not exceed by a factor of 36 the median household income. If they did, the top 1% would be taxed to maintain the ratio.

So, if a rising tide lifted all boats—the rich got richer but the median household income also rose—then the rich would not be hit with an inequality tax. They would be taxed for inequality only if their boats rose much higher than the middle class fleet.

Do you agree the freedom and equality are in tension?
Should we tax inequality itself—rather than just tax the rich?

Your opinion matters …

OurValues is designed to spark spirited, civil discussion. You’re free to print out these columns and use them in a class or small group. Or, simply talk about this on Facebook or Twitter.

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The Idea of America: What happens when Law and Ethics collide?

Homer Plessy Tomb in New Orleans

LANDMARK IN AMERICA’S QUEST FOR JUSTICE: The New Orleans tomb of Homer Plessy draws many American pilgrims every year who retrace our nation’s long struggle with civil rights. (Click this image to enlarge it for easier reading.)

Once, “separate but equal” was a law that many felt was ethically justifiable. Today, we recognize this law as grossly unjust—a violation of the ethical principles of equality and human dignity. When law and ethics collide, which should dictate your actions—the laws of the land or ethical principles?

Law versus ethics is one of the major tensions in our society. America is a nation of laws and law-abiding citizens; but it is also a nation of peaceful and violent disobedience. As the authors of The Idea of America put it, “nearly every important movement in our republic’s history involved breaking some law.” The Declaration of Independence appealed to higher ethics to justify breaking the lawful bonds between the American colonies and Great Britain. In the name of civil rights, Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger.

The law-ethics tension is everywhere. Consider, for example, three recent themes on OurValues.org: open carry gun laws, religious freedom restoration acts, and compulsory voting.

Open carry is the law in many states. Where it’s the law, you can walk down the street or attend a public concert with a Glock strapped to your hip. For supporters of the law, the ethical principle for open carry is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. For those who oppose it on ethical grounds, open carry is a dangerous, barbaric practice. (Click here to read the 5-part series on open carry.)

Many states have, or are developing, laws that would protect the freedom to deny business services if it violates religious principles. Critics say its unstated intention is to discriminate against members of the LGBT community. Proponents appeal to the ethical principles encoded in religion. (Click here to view the 5-part series on religious freedom.)

Compulsory voting is the law of the land in several democracies, but not here. Freedom to not vote is considered as important as freedom to vote. Those who support compulsory voting are willing to sacrifice a little freedom for greater representation. (Click here to read the 5-part series on compulsory voting.)

When law and ethics collide, which one dictates your actions?
Where have you seen the tension between law and ethics?

Your opinion matters …

OurValues is designed to spark spirited, civil discussion. You’re free to print out these columns and use them in a class or small group. Or, simply talk about this on Facebook or Twitter.

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The Idea of America: A perennial story of value tensions?

Williamsburg Idea of America book cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Storytelling entertains, educates, and teaches.

The stories we tell—about our nation’s founding, about our history, and about our future—convey the continuity of American ideals and principles. One such story, or set of stories, is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia—an entire town that has been restored to what it was like in the 18th century. In addition to a restored village, it has many educational programs.

One such program is The Idea of America. Do you know about it?

The Idea of America has several expressions: It is a digital program for students, then a digital program for the general public, and now it’s a book. The central premise is that “Americans embrace values that are often in tension.” These tensions existed in the founding moments of our nation and still exist today.

What are these tensions? The program and book outlines four tensions:

  • Law versus ethics
  • Freedom versus equality
  • Unity versus diversity
  • Common wealth versus private wealth

The Idea of America project walks us through our history, discussing how these four tensions have animated virtually every domain of life. This week, we’ll take a look at each tension, one each day.

Today, I’d like to begin the story with a conclusion reached by journalist Max Lerner decades ago, commenting on the polarization that existed then and that, in a various forms, exists still today. His astute observation is reproduced in The Idea of America:

“One may see in these polar impulses the proof that American life is deeply split. One may prefer to see them as contradictory parts of a bewildering puzzle. Or one may see them as signs of an effort, on a grander scale than ever in history, to resolve the conflicting impulses that are to be found in every civilization but each of which occurs here with a strength and tenacity scarcely witnessed elsewhere.”

If you have visited Colonial Williamsburg, what was your reaction?
Do you agree that America is an effort to resolve conflicting impulses?
Or, are we just deeply split?

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Religious Freedom: Can we transcend value conflict?


Click on this PRRI graphic to read the entire report online in PDF form.

The spate of religious freedom restoration acts (RFRAs) is the latest in a long-history of value conflicts in American history. In my first book on American values, published n 2005, I argued that Americans could transcend their conflicts and find a new path forward. Can we rise above our contradictions?

This week, we’ve discussed whether the political battles over RFRAs are on the right side of history, how many people are opposed to these laws in general but not in specific cases, and how tech leaders are lining up to oppose these laws. We also traveled back in history, with the aid of Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer, to see that paradoxical views were common from the earliest days of the republic.

Today, here’s more evidence of paradoxical views, this time when it comes to attitudes about abortion. Almost two of ten (18%) of Americans identify as both pro-life and pro-choice, according to a new Vox poll. Another 21% said “neither” when asked which label they identified with. Millennials are even more likely to identify with both labels, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey. About 27% say they are BOTH pro-choice and pro-life. Another 22% don’t identify with either label.

Are all these people just confused?

One school of thought argues that each person should have clear, coherent, and consistent values. Perhaps some people do, but for many this denies the reality of their individual experience. It’s common to hold views that are paradoxical. American is rife with tensions between values, which can erupt in social conflict—or energize and animate the American experience.

Next week, we’ll explore some of these tensions, drawing on a new book and project sponsored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Can we transcend our paradoxical views on religious freedom?

Your opinion matters …

OurValues is designed to spark spirited, civil discussion. You’re free to print out these columns and use them in a class or small group. Or, simply talk about this on Facebook or Twitter.

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