Friday, June 5, 2015

Has the American Dream Died?

So as I’m finding myself buried in close to 500 essays to grade here at the end of the year, I am left once again contemplating this theme of the American Dream. I started the school year off contemplating the American Dream. Before my students even studied any American Literature this year they were asked how they would define the American Dream. Their responses ranged from concepts like freedom and opportunity to individual pursuits like love, wealth, and success.

As my adolescent students are now a year away from entering the adult world where they will also embark on a journey to pursue their own dreams, they were asked to complete two writing assignments in regards to their perception of the American Dream now from the literature they’ve read throughout the year and their own experiences living in our 21st  century world.

Here is the bigger question I came to pose to them after our review of the literature in preparation for their final essay and reading their own personal narratives in which they wrote a story that reflected the American Dream of the 21st Century: Is the American Dream of today about ourselves? If so, what does that say about us today? What does that say about our future?

I think about my own concept of the American Dream. Really in many ways my perception of it is about myself.  My vision of it is about a lifetime love story to the love of my life; a beautiful healthy family; a house; a career I enjoy and find success in; and living a life in which I am able and do the things that bring me happiness with the ones I love. It sounds pretty self absorbed, doesn't it? Is your vision of your American Dream similar?

If we go back to the American Revolutionary period though the American Dream started as a concept about a better life for ALL people. It was about democracy, freedom, opportunity, and equality. It was a vision for all of society, but as we finished the year with texts like The Great Gatsby and Fences, the vision of the American Dream was focused around one man’s pursuit for his own ambitions and not only the failure of his own ambitions but how his selfish drive for his own desires also lead to the destruction of more than just himself. Both texts offer a dark, cynical view of the American Dream. It infers that it’s an illusion that leads to an obsession that prevents some from seeing the happiness that is sometimes right in front of them.

Is it even about us individually or has the individual pursuit of happiness taken away from the original vision of the American Dream which was for the people .The Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". How does the vision of individualism fit with the vision of a prospering society?

 If I were writing their final essay I would focus on the text of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (even as much as I love the Emerson pieces) because I think he bridges the two concepts of the American Dream together, the individual and the good of all. First, Douglass uses a core American value, work ethic, to rise above his situation with his personal pursuit to educate himself. Not only is he literally freed from the bondage of slavery but he frees himself from the bondage that ignorance creates. Once he has his freedom and his education, his life pursuits don’t stop there with his individual success. It could be argued that he supports the idea of the American Dream being an individual pursuit because he seeks education and freedom for himself to live a better, more fulfilling life; however, once he has it he becomes a leading advocate for abolishing slavery. He doesn’t just take his freedom, figure it’s his due, and walk away to pursue his own life’s ambitions. He uses what he gained in his personal pursuits to fight for the dream for everybody else.

We have to have purpose. If our purpose is all about ourselves then we find ourselves in a dark place like Troy Maxson or Jay Gatsby. America is meant to celebrate individuality as my beloved Romanticism period emphasizes, but I think the dream is also about using our individual gains to help others find their own greatness. Serving one another, contributing to not just our own vision of the American Dream, but the vision for all of humanity that is was meant to stand for , is the intended vision of the American Dream.

I do not believe we have lost the American Dream in our 21st  century society, but just as it's not just about us, it's important to remember our historical past. We have to know where we've been to know where we're going.

*And my closing teacher statement for the year is this is why we read and study history. English and History are important classes :) * Oh and have a great summer! Read a book that challenges your thinking and check out a historical site that gives you an appreciation for America.


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