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Amid the July Fourth fireworks, cookouts, fairs and parades, the history behind Independence Day, the sacrifices made by our Founding Fathers, and our responsibilities as modern American citizens often get lost in the shuffle.
It's not lost, however, on America's next generation.
The Bill of Rights Institute recently analyzed the thinking of 3,000 high school students nationwide - future taxpayers, parents, business owners, community activists and leaders - on the civic virtues they value, who their historical heroes are, and which of our Founding documents inspire them the most.
The survey was based on some of the 50,000 essays submitted in the "Being an American" Essay Contest for the 2009-2010 school year. This is the biggest student essay contest in the country.
So: to what civic virtues do teens aspire? Which political figures do they most admire? What Founding documents inspire them?
Many parents, teachers and other adults think today's teens aspire not to civic virtue, but to banal things such as popularity; admire teen idols such as Paris Hilton, not historical figures; and are inspired by the latest vampire-based novel in the "Twilight" series, not America's Founding documents.
Perhaps adults give teens too little credit. We found that the next generation is drawn most to role models who exhibit perseverance and courage. Nearly one-third of students believe perseverance and courage (15 percent each) are the civic values that define us as Americans. Others chose respect (14 percent), entrepreneurialism (12 percent), responsibility (9 percent), liberty (8 percent), integrity (8 percent) and justice (4 percent).
They admire leaders who could have left the burden of leadership to others but chose to step up to the plate. They look up to those who overcame difficulties in pursuit of a dream. Teens want to emulate these values and heroes in their personal lives. And they take seriously the principles outlined in our Founding documents.
These are the same timeless traits displayed by patriots of all kinds during the fight for American independence. Courage and perseverance, for example, drove countless Founders to risk their lives, fortunes, and honor in the name of freedom. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, was one of three patriots of the revolution who ranked among the students' top five role models. The others were the indispensible leader of the Founding, Gen. George Washington, and Thomas Paine, who authored the explosive revolutionary pamphlet "Common Sense."
These revolutionary leaders were joined by Abraham Lincoln (14 percent) and Martin Luther King Jr. (12 percent) as leaders whom students admire as role models.
All of these historical leaders, in one way or another, dedicated themselves to securing, defending or preserving the principles outlined in America's Founding Documents. The next generation, we found, wants to carry the torch.
For example, 47 percent of the 3,000 students selected the Declaration of Independence - the very reason we give pause this Fourth of July - as the single most inspiring Founding document.
The Constitution came in a close second, selected by 33 percent. "Common Sense," the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and the Virginia Statutes rounded out the list.
The 3,000 students in our survey weren't saying that it would be nice if Americans displayed courage, worked hard, and overcame obstacles of all kinds; they were saying that Americans have a responsibility to do so - and that's what makes us uniquely American.
Parents and teachers take note: For those who think teenagers aren't interested in the principles this country was founded upon or that they don't understand what it takes to be a modern American, our survey offers hope. Teens are in search of courageous role models and are finding them among America's Founders.
Our Founders would be proud to know their character and actions continue to inspire future generations more than 200 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Jason Ross is vice president of education programs for the Bill of Rights Institute (www.billofrightsinstitute.org), 200 N. Glebe Road, Arlington, Va. 22203.