Do Americans have any morals? That's a good question. Many people insist that ideas about right and wrong are merely personal opinions. Some voices, though, are calling Americans back to traditional moral values. William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, edited The Book of Virtues in 1993 to do just that. Bennett suggests that great moral stories can build character. The success of Bennett's book shows that many Americans still believe in moral values. But what are they?
To begin with, moral values in America are like those in any culture. In fact, many aspects of morality are universal. But the stories and traditions that teach them are unique to each culture. Not only that, but culture influences how people show these virtues.
One of the most basic moral values for Americans is honesty. The well-known legend about George Washington and the cherry tree teaches this value clearly. Little George cut down his father's favorite cherry tree while trying out his new hatchet. When his father asked him about it, George said, "I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my hatchet." Instead of punishment, George received praise for telling the truth. Sometimes American honesty-being open and direct-can offend people. But Americans still believe that "honesty is the best policy."
Another virtue Americans respect is perseverance. Remember Aesop's fable about the turtle and the rabbit that had a race? The rabbit thought he could win easily, so he took a nap. But the turtle finally won because he did not give up. Another story tells of a little train that had to climb a steep hill. The hill was so steep that the little train had a hard time trying to get over it. But the train just kept pulling, all the while saying, "I think I can, I think I can." At last, the train was over the top of the hill. "I thought I could, I thought I could," chugged the happy little train.
Compassion may be the queen of American virtues. The story of "The Good Samaritan" from the Bible describes a man who showed compassion. On his way to a certain city, a Samaritan man found a poor traveler lying on the road. The traveler had been beaten and robbed. The kind Samaritan, instead of just passing by, stopped to help this person in need. Compassion can even turn into a positive cycle. In fall 1992, people in Iowa sent truckloads of water to help Floridians hit by a hurricane. The next summer, during the Midwest flooding, Florida returned the favor. In less dramatic ways, millions of Americans are quietly passing along the kindnesses shown to them.
In no way can this brief description cover all the moral values honored by Americans. Courage, responsibility, loyalty, gratitude and many others could be discussed. In fact, Bennett's bestseller-over 800 pages-highlights just 10 virtues. Even Bennett admits that he has only scratched the surface. But no matter how long or short the list, moral values are invaluable. They are the foundation of American culture-and any culture.