What does independence mean to you?
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore our understanding of personal autonomy and responsibility.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two readers.
Leader: July is a good month to consider the topic of independence because there are two days in July that mark significant occasions of national independence.
Reader 1: 4 July marks the day in 1776 when 13 American colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence. This meant that they ceased to be part of the British Empire and became a new nation, the United States of America. No longer were they ruled from London, paying taxes to the British government. Instead, they were free to develop their own laws, commerce and nationhood.
Today, Independence Day is a national holiday in the USA. Celebrations are held across the land, from city-wide pageants, marches and firework displays to simple picnics and family gatherings. 4 July is a time to celebrate all that it means to be American.
Reader 2: 14 July is the most important day in the French year. It marks the anniversary in 1789 of the storming of the Bastille, a prison in Paris that was a symbol of the ruling monarchy. In many ways, this event was the turning point in the French Revolution. The common people asserted their right to independence from the Roman Catholic Church, the aristocracy and the monarchy. It was an initiative that resulted in the publication in August 1789 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which became a building block for international human rights legislation today. Today, Bastille Day - a public holiday in France - is marked by a military display on the Champs-Élysées in Paris followed by markets, fairs, local meals and the ubiquitous firework displays.
Leader: Independence is about becoming free from outside rule. For the USA, it was freedom from rule by a government that was based far away, across the ocean. For the common people of France, it was freedom from rule by the institutions of church and monarchy. Both nations have travelled a long and perilous path since their independence towards the end of the eighteenth century. The USA has experienced the horror of civil war; divisions between states - both east and west, and north and south; the civil unrest of racial prejudice; and the implications of a leading role in world politics. Independence has not been a bed of roses.
For France, the situation has been a little different. Political, racial and social divisions have resulted in riots and mini-revolutions, and during both world wars of the twentieth century, France lost its independence when part of the country was occupied by another power. Maybe this is why Bastille Day is such an important day of celebration in France.
Time for reflection
Leader: So, what is Independence Day for us? When do we become free people? We are allowed to earn money from part-time work from the age of 14. We can leave home or join the army at the age of 16. We can drive a car on a provisional licence at 17, and become fully adult in legal terms when we’re 18.
Do any of these rights mean that we are truly independent? What about when we get our first full-time job or leave home for college? These may each contribute to a sense of independence, but for many of us, there will still be, even at the age of 18, a need to keep closely in touch with parents, guardians and others who advise and help us. It’s helpful and reassuring to call on the experience and wisdom of those who’ve been there before. There’s also the bank of mum and dad to consider!
Even the process of becoming independent can itself be complex. How should we manage the small amount of money that we can earn at 14? If we leave home, where will we live? Driving a car requires tuition and company. There’s so much to learn about bank accounts, mortgages, insurance, healthcare, pensions, safety, careers and much, much more. I realize that, for some of you, this learning process will have begun very young. Family circumstances may have required you to act like adults and to take adult responsibilities at an earlier age than most. This has taken courage and perseverance, and you are to be congratulated and respected for that.
In fact, becoming independent is not just about the freedom that we gain for ourselves. Becoming independent is also about us taking our responsible place in a society and a world that needs our unique contribution. This has been the experience of both France and the USA over the centuries.
When you are independent, you have the freedom to make your own choices, for example, by casting your vote in elections and referendums. Recent experience has demonstrated the value of young voters exercising their vote for their future. Other choices may be about how to spend money and time, who to support and who to oppose. There is so much energy, intelligence and optimism unleashed when young people have the freedom to choose.
Independence probably won’t come to us in a revolutionary way. We’re all in the process of becoming independent. As we do so, let’s enjoy the security of those who aim to care for us. Let’s value them and return the compliment when we can.
Thank you for the prospect of independence that lies ahead for each student.
Remind us of the opportunity to serve others as well as enjoying our independence.
May our independence make the world a better place.
‘Independence Day’ by Bruce Springsteen