Myth of American dream is misleading

Salt Lake City (U-WIRE) — There is a philosophy that influences the careers of nearly all students in some way. It appears to be freeing, but really only restrains our opportunities. This deceptive culprit is the American dream.
Of course, not everyone shares the goal of experiencing the American dream. But all too often, college students and the working class in the United States buy into this myth that is often called the most glorious and wonderful part of this country.
When a person comes from a poor, working-class background and manages to “rise” through hard work and determination to a wealthy, upper-class position in society, this person is said to have accomplished the American dream.
It has been said that people must “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” in order to fulfill this dream. Ironically, if one were to pull oneself somewhere by one’s bootstraps, that person would only end up planting his or her face in the dirt.
The standard route to the American dream has changed throughout the century. From the turn of the century until the late 1960s, education was not seen as a pragmatic step in the path of the American dream. But today, almost no high-paying jobs are available without a college degree; in many fields a graduate degree is necessary.
College is seen as the standard pass to the American-dream amusement park. Sadly, most college students are not in school to expand their minds, but to increase their income potential. Most of these students will be sorely disappointed if this is their goal.
American students need to examine the values esteemed by the American dream. What is being valued when people idealize those who work hard and become rich? Is it the hard work or the wealth Americans idealize?
Do Americans idealize those who work tirelessly with little reward? How many admire a man or woman who spends 20 years without complaint cleaning hotel rooms for minimum wage? Do Americans admire the “entrepreneur” who works persistently on his or her project, only to end up in debt? If hard work is valuable to the American public in and of itself, then admiring hard workers, whether they are financially successful or otherwise, is the logical consequence.
Obviously, this is not the case.
The underlying message of the American dream, therefore, is if you are not wealthy, you are a failure. Wealth equals significance and legitimacy.
If a University of Utah economics professor were to hold a public lecture in Salt Lake City discussing his or her views on the state of Utah’s economy, how many people would show up? How many people and members of the press would show if millionaire Larry H. Miller were to give such a speech?
Not only does the American dream foster a poor value system, but the whole concept is built on the myth of easily accessible social mobility. Many Americans enjoy repeating the clichÇ that “this is the land of opportunity.”
Whose opportunity?
America offers no more social mobility than most other industrialized nations. Certainly, Western European nations can argue they offer greater opportunity for an individual to improve their wealth considering that almost every nation has free education, even at the highest level.
The American dream, however, was always a useful and manipulative myth used to enforce the status quo. Unfortunately, the ability to “rise above” one’s economic background is becoming even more difficult, making the American dream myth even more destructive.
For those of us who manage to graduate, there will be significantly fewer job opportunities than there were 20 years ago, especially in the humanities fields. Many will graduate expecting to find a high-paying job at the end of the arduous college trail, but that job will not be there.
If the American dream is such a realistic and viable option, why do so few actually fulfill the dream? The media loves to cover the one-in-a-million individual who came from a poor family and, through hard work, built a multimillion-dollar company.
Why doesn’t the media cover the not-so-inspiring stories of millions of individuals who come from poor backgrounds and never escape poverty? Certainly, one can understand why not. Can you imagine the reaction if they did?
“Ten years ago, John Anderson was living in a run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago. Through hard work and creativity, Mr. Anderson managed to keep his run-down apartment and boost his wage 50 cents an hour; now to a similar story in Los Angeles.”
For some reason, I think this would not gather the same ratings as the “rags to riches” Horatio Algier stories.
College students should not buy into this American myth. Of course, ideally, students would not attend college simply to increase their income potential; but there is nothing wrong with desiring a comfortable life. However, students should want to do more with their lives and careers than simply collect a sizable paycheck.
Bertrand Russell once said, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.” People are taught to be stupid, and taught to value stupid things by their cultures, schools and families. The desire to be wealthy, instead of the desire to be a good person and to accomplish something with your life, is a stupid value.
We should ask ourselves what our reward will be if we buy into the American dream and actually are one of the lucky few who manage to attain it. Who will we have to step on in order to climb up the corporate ladder? What kind of people will we be once we are “there”?
One of the biggest hindrances to progress in America is that Americans place far too much emphasis on wealth and consumption as the markers of success and have very little concern for their fellow men and women. Students get so caught up in the routine of competition and consumption they forget the connections they have to others around them.
You might think college students are in a dramatically different position from the average minimum-wage earner and those stuck in poverty. They are not. The market forces that make the American dream nearly impossible to realize for members of the working class are the same forces that will make the American dream unattainable for many college students.
Instead of pulling on your metaphorical bootstraps until you put your face and your morals in the dirt, just tie up your boots and walk somewhere else. As Blaise Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from mistaken conviction.”
Duncan Moench’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Utah paper, the Daily Utah Chronicle.