Recently while spring cleaning, I sorted through some older TIME magazines and put one issue down, then picked it up again. The 2012 TIME issue entitled, “The Making of America Issue: The History of the American Dream,” seemed to linger in my hands while riveting scenarios of the current deepening divides in American lifestyles, educational achievement, justice, economic realities, and dreams for improved lifestyles raced through my mind. The TIME article on the American Dream was written by Jon Meacham.
Before I venture forward, I should make it clear that my family, like many others, ascribes to an education leads to upward mobility version of the American Dream. We believe that hard work, quality higher education, delayed gratification, spiritual grounding coupled with core values of honesty, personal integrity, compassion, and altruism pave the way for personal and familial well being. Our American Dream also embraces peaceful existence with our global neighbors, whenever possible. Like our parents, we have been known to live below our financial means, at times. However, also like our parents, we seek to leave a legacy that will result in a better future for our children, grandchildren, and other people’s children. We suspect that most American families shape the Dream to fit their past family experiences and future expectations.
For the most part, like others, we are proud of our diligence, contributions as citizens, and we are honored to pass the legacy of hard work, higher education, and altruism on to our extended family, friends, and the students we have helped guide over numerous decades in higher education. Yet, while we feel hopeful overall, and we are sometimes viewed as good examples of obtaining the American Dream, we know that there are multitudes of families who feel crushed and betrayed in their quests for the good life of the American Dream.
We often wonder if the implicit Dream core values of hard work, improved quality of life, accumulation of wealth, and steady progress for individuals, for families, and for the nation have morphed into a light speed, digitally enhanced 21st century notion of progress–the accumulation of goods. We also question whether the numerous messages of a better, more consumer-oriented, Middle Class have become so commercialized that many Americans are left disillusioned? Is the commercialized American Dream a positive contribution to the global community?
So, with the magazine cradled in my hands, I sat on the floor, and I reread the article that sought to describe the economic and social complexities in which the vision of an American Dream emerged. I noted that the term American Dream was supposedly coined after the Great Depression in 1931 by popular historian James Truslow Adams in his book, The Epic of America. Historian Adams discussed the ‘American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life of every rank’ as a great thought or concept that America had contributed to the world. In brief, the Dream described an expectation of a steady improvement in the lives of everyday Americans, the lives of their children and grandchildren, and growth of the nation.
As usual, the devil is in the details. In some ways, you can argue that the concept of the American Dream for a better life is a beacon of hope which under girds many Americans and immigrants, as they endure economic hardships, an array of inequities, and conditions totally out of anyone’s control. Emerging out of the 1930’s Great Depression, it was probably crucial to rally the spirit and hearts of everyday Americans with a vision of hope for a better future. Yet, from the beginning, there were contradictions and struggles in applying the intrinsic building blocks of the Dream. At times, various groups perceived that their rights to the Dream were blocked and sought remedies in the Civil Rights Movement, Supreme Court decisions, the US Justice Department, the political system, public education, the workplace, and housing venues—to name a few.
Likewise, for most of the last decade, times have been tough in America for most citizens. Efforts to live the lifestyles that are seemingly promised by the Dream have been met with economic downturns, home foreclosures, downsizing at jobs, shrinking wages, and various gridlocks in state and federal governments. Some American citizens are professing lack of confidence and hope in the roles of once venerable institutions (such as government and higher education) in supporting the American Dream. Their uneasiness is further exasperated by data that reveal a steady unevenness of quality of life and well-being in American society for many citizens.
Yet, in some ways, we might have sabotaged ourselves in our quest for the Dream. It probably does not help that we are bombarded constantly, by media and advertisements, with examples of how we are supposed to be pursuing the Dream. Despite evidence to the contrary, ubiquitous images of people obtaining the Dream seem to suggest that disparities, struggling families, and foreclosure realities are/were only a blip in an otherwise society of beautiful, successful, technologically equipped, and content Americans citizens who are lining-up to purchase the latest must have product such as the newest cell phone, for instance.
Only when it is really hard to ignore the growing tensions and frustrations of some Americans in achieving some version of the Dream do we see some sort of news coverage of details gone awry (protests, workplace violence, toxic spills, riots, active shooters, and political gridlock). No matter how beautiful the reporters are, many of us are still not really comforted. Further, there is a growing disquiet among many Americans about the future prospects of their children, the value of a college degree, coupled with growing anxiety about retiring without enough money. The economic recovery that has not quite trickled down to millions and millions of citizens is making it increasingly difficult for them to pursue their American Dreams. Similar to the years after the Great Depression, Americans seem to need a Dream, that is supported appropriately, that helps them maintain hope, security, and economic stability.
So, what do we do? Some of us think it is time to reboot the American Dream by strengthening the pillars (institutions, policies, and living work wages) that support the core values of upward mobility, personal progress, and national progress. Certainly rebooting the American Dream would encompass policies that support families; affordable higher education; higher wage jobs; opportunities for continuing education; improved achievement in K-16 education; and fairly applied justice for all. The 21st century American Dream also seems to require broadened perspectives of racial understanding, tolerance of differences, sustainability practices, knowledge of global complexities, and an awareness of the benefits and pitfalls of a consumer driven society. Possibly, if citizens focused less on acquiring expensive possessions, without appropriate monetary resources, they would enjoy a better sense of overall well-being (and less debt). For example–what would happen if more discretionary income was invested in future leaders, innovative projects, and/or scholarships for students?
The American Dream for the 21st century would probably also benefit from taking into consideration the access to different windows of the world allowed by the Internet and alternative news networks. America, as much as we love it, is not viewed as the center of the world by everyone. A more complex, interdependent view of the world would help Americans make more knowledgeable political and social decisions.
The American Dream can once again, become a beacon of hope, but it needs to be rebooted for the technologically enhanced, and globally connected world of the 21st century! The reboot might start as close as possibly to the family unit and gradually include global communities. Meacham, Jon. “Keeping the Dream Alive,” TIME, Vol. 180, No. I, 2012.