Interdependence . . . IS an American Value®


Note: Review copies of this guide drew comments from readers who wondered if the value we were seeking to illuminate was “community” instead of “interdependence”.  We have chosen to continue focusing on interdependence because independence is so strongly emphasized as a value in American culture.  However, In order to promote discussions that compare and contrast “community”, “interdependence”, and “independence”, we have defined all three terms below.

Why definitions? Words are extremely powerful, and dictionaries are always very precise about what vocabulary they use in their definitions. Look at how definitions of “interdependent”, “independent”, and “community” overlap or differ. Look over the definitions together as a group, and list out the words frequently used to define each term. Make a separate list of how the definitions have changed. Are these changes substantial or subtle? How would the definitions apply to an individual, community, or government? As a group, come up with your own definitions for Interdependence, paying close attention to what the group wishes to include or exclude.

For Interdependent:

Mutually dependent

Mutually dependent; reliant on one another

Organisms that need each other for survival.

People and/or businesses depending on or helping each other.

1. Depending on each other: unable to exist or survive without each other
interdependent organisms
2. With mutually dependent elements: relying on mutual assistance, support, cooperation, or interaction among constituent parts or members


Adj. (of two or more people of things) Dependent on each other: the increasingly global nature of human society, with interdependent economies.
-Oxford American Dictionaries (1998)

Mutually dependent
-American Heritage Dictionary (1994)

Dependent each upon the other, mutually dependent.
-Oxford English Dictionary (1973)

For Independent:

Consider contrasting the above definitions of interdependence with the definitions of independence below.

1. Not governed by a foreign power.
2. Free from the influence, guidance, or control of others; self reliant.
3. Not Contingent.
4. Not committed to any one political party.
-American Heritage Dictionary (1994)

1. a) not subject to authority or control.
b) self-governing
2. a) not depending on another person for one’s opinion or livelihood
b) making it unnecessary to earn one’s living.
3. Unwilling to be under an obligation to others.
4. Not belonging to or supported by a party.
-Oxford American Dictionaries (1998)

Not depending on the authority of another; not in a position of subordination or subjection; not subject to external rule or control; self governing, autonomous, free.
-Oxford English Dictionary (1973)

For Community:

1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.
5. Ecclesiastical. a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.
6. Ecology. an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area.
7. joint possession, enjoyment, liability, etc.: community of property.
8. similar character; agreement; identity: community of interests.
9. the community, the public; society: the needs of the community.

1. a) A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government.
b) The locality in which such a group lives.
2. A group of people having common interests.
3. Similarity: a community of interests
4. Society as a whole.
5. Ecology. A group of plants and animals living with one another in a specific region.
-American Heritage Dictionary (1994)

1. The quality of appertaining to or being held by all in common; joint or common ownership, tenure, liability, etc.; as in a community of goods.
2. Life in association with others; society, the social state.
3. A body of those having common or equal rights or rank, as distinguished from the privileged classes; the body of commons; the commonality.
4. A body of people organized into a political, municipal, or social unity: a) A state or commonwealth. b) a body of men living in the same locality.
-Oxford English Dictionary (1973)




Voices in History

Quotations help to reflect values that are important to American society. The following collection of quotes indicates that interdependence has long been a part of our country’s dialogue. Many other quotes can be found by encouraging group members to explore quotation sites on the Internet. Ask the group to discuss the relationship of interdependence and democracy in light of these quotes.

There is no such thing as a “self-made” man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.
-George Matthew Adams, Columnist, (1878-1962)

The humblest individual exerts some influence, either for good or evil, upon others.
-Henry Ward Beecher, American Congregational preacher, (1813–1887)

Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail but when I look at the subsequent developments I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself.
-Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor, (1847-1922)

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
-John Muir Naturalist, Preservationist and Founder of the Sierra Club, (1838-1914)

The hungry world cannot be fed until and unless the growth of its resources and the growth of its population come into balance. Each man and woman—and each nation—must make decisions of conscience and policy in the face of this great problem.
-Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, (1908–1973)

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
-Ancient Native American Proverb

You cannot be witness to the human suffering and not be convinced of the existence of social sin. We are responsible unless we take a stand and speak out against it.
-Father Luis Olivares- Pastor

Other Voices in History

Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.
-Mohandas Gandhi

Instead of saying that globalization is a fact, that it’s inevitable, we’ve also got to demonstrate that while the growing interdependence of the world economy is indeed a fact, it’s not uncontrollable.
-Peter Mandelson, EU Trade Commissioner

The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.
-Marshall McLuhan

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
-Thomas Merton




Historical Sources & Study Questions

How does one decide what an American value might be? The soundest approach is by using core historical documents. Materials ingrained into American culture include the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution, as well as famous speeches, Supreme Court cases, and other sources documenting events or ideas from American history.

Before moving onto the historical sources and study questions listed here, consider starting a group discussion by asking how the group might identify an American “value.” Have the group make a list of what it considers to be “American values” and why. See if the values group members come up with are similar to those used in these study guides.


U.S. Constitution Online

Interactive Constitution

Begin by reading the group the Preamble to the United States Constitution, which states, “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.”

In the most basic sense, federalism is a form of government based in a group of unified states.  While the United States is constructed from many states that maintain a degree of individual operation we have also formed a federal union called the United States.  As you consider the provisions below, discuss the ways in which these states are both independent and interdependent. Also ask the group to discus why the states joined the union.

The following three articles from the Constitution are useful for a discussion on Interdependence.  Read these three articles, which are listed below, to the group.  You can discuss interdependence and independence with each article individually or proceed to discussing the Constitution more generally.

Article 5. No State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Article 6. This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Article 10. The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution, nor prohibited by the States, are reserved to the states respectively, or the people.


Ask the group about the balance struck between independence and interdependence within the constitution.  On the one hand, Article 6, the supremacy clause, indicates that the law of the federal government must always be respected no matter what.  On the other hand, Article 10 indicates that there are rights reserved for individual states.  In this same fashion, while our legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government maintain a certain degree of independence, their operations are interconnected through the system of checks and balances set forth in the constitution. You can ask the group:

1) To what extent does the U.S. Constitution encourage independence or interdependence (among states)?  Why?  Have the group read the articles above, or other articles in the Constitution, and decide what they think.

2)To what degree are states currently interdependent?  Does the group believe this has changed over time?  How?  Why?

3) Some people argue that the power of individual states has been eroded and the federal government has grown beyond the limits of the constitution while others argue for our federal government to play a greater role in our life than in currently does because the states cannot do it all on their own.  What do the members of the group believe?  Why?  Are there clear lines the federal government or the states are not allowed to cross?  Is the system of checks and balances enough?  Why or why not?


Communities are an integral part of human life.  Discuss the relationship between interdependence and community generally with your group before and after working through this three part section.


Rural History

Library of Congress, Miss Spencer

For much of its history, rural life in the United States has been quite hard.  From communal harvesting and one room schoolhouses to electric cooperatives, working together has been the key to surviving in rural areas.  Despite the common image, the frontier was no place for rugged individualism; surviving alone was difficult if not impossible.  Early life in the United States required a reliance on farming for sustenance and cooperation with neighbors to better the community.

1) Explore some information about the life in rural communities in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. This can include on-line or printed information or oral histories.  How did people help each other?  Why?  What does the group think it would take for a community to be self sustaining?  In what ways were the members of these communities interdependent?  Try finding and discussing examples in your own state.

2) Read the excerpted interview with Miss Spencer.  It seems like her community was very self sufficient, yet, it still depended on many outsiders.  How?  It what ways did members of the community work together?  In what ways did the community’s future depend on recognition of their interdependence?  How would your group describe and define their own community?


Barn Raising Photo Stories

Barn Raising Wikipedia Article

The practice of barn raising illustrates one of the ways this interdependence worked out in communities.  Although it continues today, barn raising was most prominent during the 18th- and 19th-centuries in rural areas of the United States.  In building a barn, an entire community comes together to offer their labor to a single member.  During the raising of a barn, individual community members were are not paid. However, the practice reinforces community bonds, tying members to each other with the promise of help to be given when one is in need.  This practice created networks of mutual obligation and helped to keep people bound together.  It could be said that these networks – “interdependence” – laid the foundation for the American West.

1) Why does the group think that people would help each other build barns? Could this interdependent relationship work across multiple communities? Can communities survive without interdependent relationships?

2) Does it seem surprising to some members of the group that people would work without pay or any sort of clear contract that indicates a future return. Why or why not? How does the practice of barn raising (farming) differ from the way we organize our labor today?  Can “barn raising” serve as a metaphor for other sorts of labor and community relationships in the contemporary United States?  In the world?


NPR Story

Greensburg Information and Links

Greensburg Official Website

In May of 2007 Greenburg, KS was almost entirely destroyed by one of the strongest tornado’s on our records.  While this town had been on a steady decline leading up to its near destruction, the residents decided to restore the community rather than give up and move.  Just a few days after the storm, the Superintendent of Schools, Darren Hedrick, was quoted as saying, “Towns are about people, they’re not about buildings. And it’s a huge opportunity to rebuild — not just rebuild it the way it was but maybe rebuild it a little bit better than it was”.

Further,as the Mayor, Lonnie McCollum, stated, “It’s easy to focus on the negative here, you must come to terms with the devastation… But once we’ve recovered, once we’ve moved past that and we rebuild, that’s where I’m certain we will set our city apart from others.”

In fact, Greensburg is working to set their town apart with LEED* standards and the ideal of making it the greenest in the United States.

1) Look around on the Greensburg website.  Why does the group think the citizens of Greensburg chose to work to rebuild their community instead of abandoning it?  Why would they choose to make their town environmentally friendly?  Why would the people in this town want to stay there?

2) One will probably notice that the city is asking for donations; furthermore, their website indicates that they have received donations from around the world.  Why would people around the world be interested in helping this small and remote Kansas town?  What does this say about global culture?  Is this a recognition of interdependence or an indication that environmentalism is a widespread fad?  Why?

To what extent does the emergence of LEED standards and the national and global conversations on sustainability reflect interdependence?

The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts

EPA – Water

EPA – Air

In the early 1960’s, Congress laid the foundation for the environmental regulations that continue to apply today.  This legislation began by outlining the understanding  that:

“the  predominant part of the Nation’s population is located in  its rapidly expanding metropolitan  and other urban areas, which generally cross the boundary lines of local jurisdictions and often extend into two or more States;” and “that the growth in the amount and complexity of air pollution brought about  by urbanization, industrial  development, and  the increasing  use  of motor  vehicles,  has resulted in mounting dangers  to the  public health and  welfare, including injury  to agricultural crops and  livestock, damage to and the deterioration  of  property, and hazards to  air  and  ground transportation”

While the Clean Water Act came together as a whole about ten years later, it was becoming increasingly clear that widespread standards were necessary for the protection of both environmental and public health.  These standards have been steadily shifted to make them more effective and beneficial.

1) Some argue that these acts have unduly restricted the ability of corporations to generate profit while others argue that they are still not strong enough.  Have the group explore some of the ideas within the Clean Water and Air acts.  What do they think?  Should we be working to improve profits or to improve our environment?  Why?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Why or why not?  Can the two work in tandem for long term benefit?

2) It would seem that these acts clearly recognize that our culture is deeply intertwined with our environment.  What does the group think?  What impacts do we have on the environment?  What impacts does the environment have on us?  How are our communities affected by the environment?  How is the environment affected by our communities?  How can one individual’s choices affect the environment?




Contemporary Examples

Although the term “interdependence” may not be often discussed, nearly every day issues related to interdependence are reported, debated, and discussed in the media and government.

As a group, go through a stack of newspapers or magazines, or browse the internet and have group members point out articles that reflect the existence of interdependence. Discuss these in the context of the ideas and concepts already pointed out from the definitions and historical sources. Ask them to consider if the article or report is promoting a particular point of view. What is being reported and what is not? Why? What additional information would the group like to have?Ask group members how their views were shaped by their own experiences with interdependence.

The following examples highlight some of the contemporary issues that relate to interdependence.

Human Rights and The United Nations

About the UN

The UN on Human Rights

The United Nations was formed following World War II.  Today almost every recognized nation is a member of this international organization.  In addition to working for the prevention of international conflict, one of the United Nations’ central roles in international politics has been to promote the implementation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that outlines rights that all humans should have simply on the basis of being human.  Although the concept of human rights is generally understood, the implementation of these rights varies greatly across member nations. While member states are not legally bound to follow the decisions of the United Nations or the code of the Universal Declaration, both are internationally recognized as fundamental to the furtherance of human rights.

1) Have the group look at some of the documents that form the U.N. and the Universal Declaration.  What does the group think about the role of the U.N. today?  What are “human rights” and what does the U.N. have to do with them?  Do the members of the group believe that human rights are worth pursuing?  Why or why not?  Why does the implementation of the human rights agenda vary across member nations?

2) How would the members of the group explain the reasoning for the formation of the U.N.? Why was the U.N. important then?  Does it continue to be important today? Why or why not?  It would seem that part of the role of the U.N. is to highlight the interdependence of world nations.  Does the group agree with this view of the UN’s role?  Are the nations of the world interdependent? Why or why not?

3) Consider the following quote and ask the members of the group what they think it indicates about independence and interdependence.  What does this quote indicate about the UN?  What does the group think about the role of interdependence in our history?

“In our increasingly interdependent world, Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation of fifty years ago that tomorrow is already walking within today is more true than ever. Our children and our grandchildren, and many more generations to come, will have to live with the consequences of the choices that we make. Let us not fail them. The UN is the central stage of a global response to global challenges, and it is our solemn responsibility to ensure for the future that our civilization is worthy of the inspiring vision that the founders of the United Nations left to us.”

-H.E. Srgjan Kerim, President of the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, 24 August 2007.

North American Free Trade Agreement

NAFTA Information

The NAFTA trade policies took effect in January of 1994 to create what continues to be the largest trade bloc in the world.  The primary goal was and continues to be increasing, regularizing, and streamlining trade between the United States, Mexico, and Canada through the general elimination of tariffs and taxes.  At the time, it was argued that NAFTA should be implemented to strengthen each economy in the face of rising international economic competition.

1) Many have argued that “freeing trade” has only helped to move jobs and businesses outside of the United States, yet, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, prior to 2009, clearly claims that our unemployment rate has decreased in the time since the implementation of NAFTA.  Have the group look over some of the claims made on the US government website listed above.  What do they think?  Does the website accurately portray the benefits and limitations of NAFTA?  Why or why not?  Why does the group think that the governments of these nations chose this path?

2) Does NAFTA recognize the interdependence of the economies of these nations?  Are there other treaties that work for similar goals across the globe?  What are some of the difficulties in establishing “free trade”?

3) What does NAFTA have to do with immigration?  Has NAFTA has made it easier for money and goods to cross borders?  Has it done the same for people?  Why or why not?  If money and goods can move freely, should people also be able to move freely?  Why or why not?

Home Foreclosures and Financial Markets

Wikipedia on the Financial Crisis

New York Times Interactive Graphic

Special Report from The Economist

Your group will be familiar with the financial crisis that became public in the fall of 2008.  This financial crisis developed over at least 7 years and reflects lending practices that, over time, created an increasing number of defaults.  As the mortgage crisis developed, investors left the market and interest rates were cut in an attempt to stabilize the situation.  Since then, major lending institutions have been merging and folding.

If your group is interested in digging deeper and discussing the ramifications of the this crisis, explore additional articles by searching for “The Reckoning” on the New York Times website or reading about “America’s Economy” on The Economist website.

1) Ask the group what groups were indirectly or directly affected by the economic crisis and how?  What sorts of changes in regulations allowed for these economic failures? To what extent did those affected by these changes have the opportunity to influence or even understand these changes and how they would be affected?  What does this market crisis teach us about global financial markets?

2) Consider discussing the tax system and what this crisis means for the average American.  What sort of government institutions play a role in dealing with this financial crisis?  Who will pay the bill for the money the government is spending on the “bail outs”?  What does this mean for people in your group?  Has anyone in the group been personally affected by this crisis?  How?  What can be done to prevent this in the future?

3)  Some people were given loans that they could not afford.  For instance, lenders were lax in checking on employment records and payees failed to disclose completely accurate information.  Is it possible to hold any individuals responsible for this market crisis?  Why or why not? What happens to a person when they lose their home?  How do market forces affect individual members of the group?  Consider discussing the interdependence of individuals who act in the market and those that write or enforce our regulations with our communities and our individual lives.




Final Note

National League of Cities Report: Changing the Way We Govern

The release of this guide was held up to allow for the conclusion of the 2008 presidential elections.  During these elections we have seen messages that have ranged from an emphasis on personal courage to an emphasis on community and hope.  As we face the greatest economic challenges since the Great Depression, we have the opportunity to shift the way we communicate and cooperate not only on the national level, but within all of our communities.  If you are interested in learning more about community engagement, consider starting a discussion about the above National Leagues of Cities report titled, “Changing the Way We Govern”.

Memorandum of January 21, 2009
Federal Register, Volume 74, Number 15, Page 4685
Transparency and Open Government
Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My
Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation. I direct the Chief Technology Officer, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Administrator of General Services, to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive, to be issued by the Director of OMB, that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum. The independent agencies should comply with the Open Government Directive. This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.




Secondary Sources

Below are links to websites and resources that deal with Interdependence.

The Interdependence Project

The Case Foundation

The Harwood Institute

The Chicago Field Museum’s Center for Cultural Understanding and Change

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