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Defining America: Preamble, Youth Vlogs, Commentary, and a Literacy Narrative

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U.S. Constitution - Preamble

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Signed in convention September 17, 1787. Ratified June 21, 1788

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We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

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What Does America Stand For? We Asked Teenagers

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By , The New York Times,

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Beginning in early 2017, I began asking teenagers around the country to make videos in which they responded to the following question: “What are your values as a person? What are American values? Do you think the country is living up to those values today? Why or why not?” Their answers have a new urgency in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., which has brought lingering questions about America’s past, present and future to the forefront of the national conversation.

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The footage in the video above was all submitted before the rally in Charlottesville. I was inspired to collect it by my conversations with young people in the months following the 2016 election. It started with an election-week experiment — I wanted to hear what first-time voters in Pennsylvania had to say about starting their voting lives in what already felt, to me, like a historically bizarre time. In the weeks that followed, I talked to young protesters, youth reporters at a local newspaper and teenage environmental activists.

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Adults often dismiss teenagers, assuming that they’re callow, apathetic or uninformed. But the kids I was meeting cared passionately about education, foreign policy, racial justice and more. Even when they weren’t sure how they felt about a certain candidate or issue, they were clearly thinking deeply.

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Struck by what I’d heard, I decided to solicit young people’s opinions in a more systematic way, to paint a picture of how their generation sees the country today. That’s how this collection of personal videos came about.

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I wrote to dozens of teenagers — young people I’d met at protests, young Republicans I’d talked to around Election Day, teenagers who were already vlogging about their high school experiences on YouTube. I also reached out to Christian youth groups, home-schooling associations, L.G.B.T. rights organizations, groups representing Native American youth and many other organizations, asking them to recommend young people who might want to participate.

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My goal was to pull together a group that was diverse in as many ways as possible: geographically, politically and in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. Not everyone said yes — one teenager wrote to me that “Trump could learn from President Putin how to deal with ‘journalists’ like yourself.” But in the end, I got more than 30 videos in which teenagers talked about their values. Some of them also agreed to submit follow-up videos in which they told me more about the communities where they lived.

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The video above contains a sampling of the videos the teenagers submitted. It’s not as scientific or wide-ranging as a poll or a survey. Instead, think of it as a kind of preview: This is how our country looks today to some of the young people who will help decide its future.

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Anna North (@annanorthtweets) is a journalist and novelist.

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Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

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The Transformation of the 'American Dream'

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Robert J. Shiller, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2017

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CreditKatherine Lam
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“The American Dream is back.” President Trump made that claim in a speech in January.

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They are ringing words, but what do they mean? Language is important, but it can be slippery. Consider that the phrase, the American Dream, has changed radically through the years.

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Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, have suggested it involves owning a beautiful home and a roaring business, but it wasn’t always so. Instead, in the 1930s, it meant freedom, mutual respect and equality of opportunity. It had more to do with morality than material success.

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This drift in meaning is significant, because the American Dream — and international variants like the Australian Dream, Le Rêve Français and others — represents core values. In the United States, these values affect major government decisions on housing, regulation and mortgage guarantees, and millions of private choices regarding whether to start a business, buy an ostentatious home or rent an apartment.

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Conflating the American dream with expensive housing has had dangerous consequences: It may have even contributed to the last housing bubble, the one that led to the financial crisis of 2008-9.

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These days, Mr. Trump is using the hallowed phrase in pointed ways. In his January speech, he framed the slogan as though it were an entrepreneurial aspiration. “We are going to create an environment for small business like we haven’t seen in many many decades,” he said, adding, “So, essentially, we are getting rid of regulations to a massive extent, could be as much as 75 percent.”

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Mr. Carson has explicitly said that homeownership is a central part of the Dream. In a speech at the National Housing Conference on June 9, he said, “I worry that millennials may become a lost generation for homeownership, excluded from the American Dream.”

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But that wasn’t what the American Dream entailed when the writer James Truslow Adams popularized it in 1931, in his book “The Epic of America.”

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Mr. Adams emphasized ideals rather than material goods, a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” And he clarified, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and recognized by others for what they are.

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His achievement was an innovation in language that largely replaced the older terms “American character” and “American principles” with a forward-looking phrase that implied modesty about current success in giving respect and equal opportunity to all people. The American dream was a trajectory to a promising future, a model for the United States and for the whole world.

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In the 1930s and ’40s, the term appeared occasionally in advertisements for intellectual products: plays, books and church sermons, book reviews and high-minded articles. During these years, it rarely, if ever, referred to business success or homeownership.

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By 1950, shortly after World War II and the triumph against fascism, it was still about freedom and equality. In a book published in 1954, Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate, defined the American Dream with spiritually resounding words: “Religious liberty to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience and equal opportunity for all men,” he said, “are the twin pillars of the American Dream.”

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The term began to be used extensively in the 1960s. It may have owed its growing power to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, in which he spoke of a vision that was “deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He said he dreamed of the disappearance of prejudice and a rise in community spirit, and certainly made no mention of deregulation or mortgage subsidies.

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But as the term became more commonplace, its connection with notions of equality and community weakened. In the 1970s and ’80s, home builders used it extensively in advertisements, perhaps to make conspicuous consumption seem patriotic.

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Thanks in part to the deluge of advertisements, many people came to associate the American Dream with homeownership, with some unfortunate results. Increasing home sales became public policy. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the American Dream Downpayment Act, subsidizing home purchases during a period in which a housing bubble — the one that would lead to the 2008-9 financial crisis — was already growing at a 10 percent annual rate, according to the S.& P. Corelogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price index (which I helped to create).

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This year, Forbes Magazine started what it calls the “American Dream Index.” It is based on seven statistical measures of material prosperity: bankruptcies, building permits, entrepreneurship, goods-producing employment, labor participation rate, layoffs and unemployment claims. This kind of characterization is commonplace today, and very different from the original spirit of the American dream.

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One thing is clear: Bringing back the fevered housing dream of a decade ago would not be in the public interest. In “House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes,” published in 2008, Daniel McGinn marveled at the craving for housing in that era: “In many neighborhoods, if you’d judged the nation’s interests by its backyard-barbecue conversation — settings where subjects like war, death, and politics are risky conversational gambits — a lot of people find homes to be more compelling than any geopolitical struggle.”

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This is not to say that homes have no appropriate place in our dreams or our consciousness. To the contrary, in a 2015 book “Home: How Habitat Made Us Human,” the neuroanthropologist John S. Allen wrote, “We humans are a species of homebodies.” Ever since humans began making stone tools and pottery, they have needed a place to store them, he says, and the potential for intense feelings about our homes has evolved.

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But the last decade has shown that with a little encouragement, many can easily become excessively lustful about homeownership and wealth, to the detriment of our economy and society.

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That’s the wrong way to go. Instead, we need to bring back the American Dream of a just society, where everyone has an opportunity to reach “the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.

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Robert J. Shiller is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale.

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The Upshot provides news, analysis and graphics about politics, policy and everyday life. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our newsletter.

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A version of this article appears in print on
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, on Page BU3 of the New York edition with the headline: The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’

. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Superman and Me

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Sherman Alexie in the L.A. Times, April 19, 1998

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I learned to read with a Superman comic book. Simple enough, I suppose. I cannot recall which particular Superman comic book I read, nor can I remember which villain he fought in that issue. I cannot remember the plot, nor the means by which I obtained the comic book. What I can remember is this: I was 3 years old, a Spokane Indian boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state. We were poor by most standards, but one of my parents usually managed to find some minimum-wage job or another, which made us middle-class by reservation standards. I had a brother and three sisters. We lived on a combination of irregular paychecks, hope, fear and government surplus food.

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My father, who is one of the few Indians who went to Catholic school on purpose, was an avid reader of westerns, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, gangster epics, basketball player biographies and anything else he could find. He bought his books by the pound at Dutch's Pawn Shop, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Value Village. When he had extra money, he bought new novels at supermarkets, convenience stores and hospital gift shops. Our house was filled with books. They were stacked in crazy piles in the bathroom, bedrooms and living room. In a fit of unemployment-inspired creative energy, my father built a set of bookshelves and soon filled them with a random assortment of books about the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Vietnam War and the entire 23-book series of the Apache westerns. My father loved books, and since I loved my father with an aching devotion, I decided to love books as well.

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I can remember picking up my father's books before I could read. The words themselves were mostly foreign, but I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn't have the vocabulary to say "paragraph," but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States. My family's house was a paragraph, distinct from the other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the Tribal School to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separate paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us. Now, using this logic, I can see my changed family as an essay of seven paragraphs: mother, father, older brother, the deceased sister, my younger twin sisters and our adopted little brother.

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At the same time I was seeing the world in paragraphs, I also picked up that Superman comic book. Each panel, complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was a three-dimensional paragraph. In one panel, Superman breaks through a door. His suit is red, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrative above the picture. I cannot read the words, but I assume it tells me that "Superman is breaking down the door." Aloud, I pretend to read the words and say, "Superman is breaking down the door." Words, dialogue, also float out of Superman's mouth. Because he is breaking down the door, I assume he says, "I am breaking down the door." Once again, I pretend to read the words and say aloud, "I am breaking down the door" In this way, I learned to read.

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This might be an interesting story all by itself. A little Indian boy teaches himself to read at an early age and advances quickly. He reads "Grapes of Wrath" in kindergarten when other children are struggling through "Dick and Jane." If he'd been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy. But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity. He grows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.

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A smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike. I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations inside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basic reading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. They were monosyllabic in front of their non-Indian teachers but could tell complicated stories and jokes at the dinner table. They submissively ducked their heads when confronted by a non-Indian adult but would slug it out with the Indian bully who was 10 years older. As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. Those who failed were ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians.

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I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late into the night, until I could barely keep my eyes open. I read books at recess, then during lunch, and in the few minutes left after I had finished my classroom assignments. I read books in the car when my family traveled to powwows or basketball games. In shopping malls, I ran to the bookstores and read bits and pieces of as many books as I could. I read the books my father brought home from the pawnshops and secondhand. I read the books I borrowed from the library. I read the backs of cereal boxes. I read the newspaper. I read the bulletins posted on the walls of the school, the clinic, the tribal offices, the post office. I read junk mail. I read auto-repair manuals. I read magazines. I read anything that had words and paragraphs. I read with equal parts joy and desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I was trying to save my life.

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Despite all the books I read, I am still surprised I became a writer. I was going to be a pediatrician. These days, I write novels, short stories, and poems. I visit schools and teach creative writing to Indian kids. In all my years in the reservation school system, I was never taught how to write poetry, short stories or novels. I was certainly never taught that Indians wrote poetry, short stories and novels. Writing was something beyond Indians. I cannot recall a single time that a guest teacher visited the reservation. There must have been visiting teachers. Who were they? Where are they now? Do they exist? I visit the schools as often as possible. The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist. "Books," I say to them. "Books," I say. I throw my weight against their locked doors. The door holds. I am smart. I am arrogant. I am lucky. I am trying to save our lives.

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DMU Timestamp: February 08, 2018 18:47

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