I am generationally labeled a “baby-boomer.” By that definition, my American Dream is a narcissistic flight into self where I discovered my feelings with fantastic music, cheap gasoline, mind altering substances, and am now deferentially courted by the AARP. My “baby-boomer” moniker comes to me courtesy of two members of the Greatest Generation. My father, turned 93 this year, is living the American dream he fought for in WWII—winding down his days in the only home he ever bought with his wife of 63 years, enjoying grandchildren, reading, and turning up the television as loud as he likes. My father went to college on the G.I. Bill and has been an avid reader all his life. In going through some of his college books, I happened upon The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams (any book with “Epic” in the title must be authored by a person with three names). Puns aside, Mr. Adams’ early 20th century description of the American Dream is prescient and current. He wrote it was “the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every (person), with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement…” He added that even by his book’s publication in 1931 “ … too many of us have grown mistrustful of … a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are capable and to be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (p. 317).
“ I do believe we’re heading toward apocalypse – the collapse, the total shame and impotence of the American Dream”
HUNTER S. THOMPSON 1972
I don’t think we mistrust the dream as much as those who seek to control access to opportunities that help us make the dream come true. While that will be explored in the next article, let me now share some diverse and yet strikingly similar views on the American Dream. I have the privilege of working at an urban university in Northeast Ohio. My students come from around the world and from many walks of life. In the past year, I have had conversations with them about the American Dream. Here is some of what they shared.
Janine earned a master’s degree in counseling and now works at a center specializing in helping people conquer opioid addiction. Janine identifies as African-American and as an Evangelical Christian. Her mother and father died two years apart of heroin overdoses and she and her brother were raised by an Aunt. Janine says the American Dream is to walk freely and safely as a black woman from home to work; to someday own her own home and be recognized for her merits. As an alumni of the state university system, Janine says state schools are an integral part of her American Dream. Loans and one scholarship allowed her to work part-time while attending school full time. She sees the biggest threat to her American Dream is our society devaluing support for higher education. Janine believes prejudice and racism will always be with us, but they can be overcome. She celebrated last month paying off all her student loans.
Karwana earned a Ph.D. in policy studies and came to the United States from Uganda in 1985 with his Uncle to escape the Ugandan Bush War. His name means “born during wartime” which in his case was the Ugandan-Tanzania war. At age seven, he witnessed his parents being killed and hid “in the bush” with his Uncle for two days. Since leaving Uganda, Karwana’s American Dream has always been to teach international politics. His dream took a big leap forward last year when he earned a tenured faculty position out of state. Karwana often fiercely debated fellow students who identified as African-American and the debates seemed rooted in vastly different childhoods. While he recognizes prejudice and racism, he says the American Dream is to be able to be a man, pursue education, and provide for a family. His most cherished early memory is watching the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush with his Uncle who pointed out that power could be handed off without killing. Karwana sees the biggest threat to his American Dream as divisive language that turns into divisive emotion. Like Janine, he values reasoning for its capacity to help people grow beyond divisive emotion.
Ingrid is a first-generation Latino-American earning her master’s degree in Adult Learning and Development. Ingrid’s father and mother were granted citizenship in 1970. He is an oncological surgeon and she a Registered Nurse. Ingrid recalls their stories of a Mexico torn by gang wars and corruption. Even though her father was a prominent man in their home town, the whole family was vulnerable to kidnapping because they were financially well-off and light-skinned. She says it sounds crazy, but prejudice about skin seems worldwide. Ingrid’s parents resolved to move here when they learned Ingrid would be born in eight months. Ingrid describes her American Dream as complex. She says “many of my peers think I am too privileged and detached from the needs of ‘my people.’ My American Dream is the freedom to live my life as I choose, not to be obligated to a cause because of genetics or culture, and to include all people as my people. I believe in education and am pursuing my master’s degree in that. I am honored to be an instructor for anyone willing to learn. Being free to work in a field of my choosing is an important part of my American Dream.”
Each of these students, in their own way, has an American Dream similar to James Truslow Adams. It is a dream of autonomy and the freedom to be who they choose to be. Each of the students whose stories I shared recognized that the American Dream can be a nightmare for many people. For them though, it is an ideal of meritocracy. All of them know there are people who would rid the planet of meritocracy if they could. They also know there are those willing to fight to preserve meritocracy. To them, this is part of the human condition, the human struggle for power and influence. To paraphrase several presidents, they would agree that freedom always has to be fought for in some manner. But a fight can be dedication to education, freeing people from drug addiction, or teaching people about international politics. Each of these students agreed that the living of their version of the American Dream, may dovetail with a fight for freedom.
The late comedian George Carlin said that “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.” As much as I love Mr. Carlin’s work, I (and the students whose stories I shared) think he may have missed the mark here. Unlike most dreams, the American Dream cannot be fulfilled while one is sleeping or sleepwalking through life. It is a dedication to a way of life that requires fierce alertness, compassion, drive, and a willingness to act—even fight, if necessary. A little luck never hurts, but it is not the main ingredient. In the next article, we will explore the threats to the American Dream of my students and how best to facilitate the dream in the 21st century.
In the past year there has been much reflection as well as gnashing of teeth about the idea of the American Dream. This has prompted me to explore the idea in two articles, this being the first. In this article you will hear from students at an urban university and what their idea of the American Dream is. In the next article, I address what these students see as threats to that dream. This much I can say; I am an American and I have an American Dream. Some of my liberal friends will say my dream is an anarchic nightmare (though many of them are narrative deconstructionists). My conservative friends will say my dream is a socialist dystopia (though several of them are on Medicare). Most people who don’t know me could not care less about my American Dream. That is their right of course; most of them are Americans and above all else, many Americans dream of simply ignoring each other. Studying the writing of journalist Hunter Thompson inspired my fascination with the American Dream. He wanted to author a book on the death of that dream but by his own admission the topic was “too vast and weighty.” My own forays into the topic suggest that the American Dream is far from dead. It lives on in what some may consider the most unlikely of places. In this first of two articles on the American Dream, I will share descriptions of it from the students I teach. In the second, I will write about what my students feel we in the 21st century can do to facilitate the dream.
“ I am the American Dream. I am the epitome of what the American Dream basically said. It said you could come from anywhere and be anything you want in this country. That’s exactly what I’ve done.”