Is the American Dream for Everyone? Exceptionalism and High School Students Series, Part 1

Statue of Liberty NY (1)For the first installment in the series, Covenant 11th grader Konstantina Damvakaris pushes us to consider the meaning of “the American Dream.” The term was coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1932 book The Epic of America. We hear about the American dream all the time, but how has the concept been portrayed in American literature, and how has the concept developed in history? And is the concept consistent with the liberal ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence?

The original is a nine page, well-researched paper entitled “Americanism.” Here is an excerpt–

To a certain extent, the American Dream is true. People have become incredibly successful through effort and talent. There are enough stories from the past and present to make the American Dream credible. However, not everyone starts on an even playing field, and many people who are wealthy are born into their wealth. For many, the disadvantages exceed their abilities and much of the population faces exclusion from the American Dream because of prejudicial institutions already in place. America is attached to the notion that it is a society in which class does not exist, but everyone who has been to Bloomingdale’s and WalMart can clearly see the rift. The common notion about the American Dream is that one should accumulate as much material wealth as possible because that will grant individual power and a high position on the social scale. Originally, the idea of the Founding Fathers was to create an educated and humane society where everyone would care for one another–the classical idea of a commonwealth. The American Dream is unachievable because our society is not ideal; it is not based upon knowledge and compassion toward one another. It is based instead on the value and pursuit of material goods.

American Exceptionalism is the notion that in America one can pursue liberty, equality, and opportunity to an extent unmatched by any other nation in the world. Historian Gordon Wood said that, “Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” Americans exhibit a certain arrogance when they subscribe to the notion of exceptionalism, as when Puritan leader, John Winthrop, suggested that America is a “shining city.” The Puritans surmised that America was akin to the Garden of Eden–it was a place where humanity could begin anew. The idea of exceptionalism was also a call to revolution as in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In his pamphlet “Common Sense,” Paine asserted that America was not a British colony anymore, but a new nation with unlimited potential. Nevertheless, it would be naive to deny the brutal fact of American Exceptionalism inherent in its related variation, the concept of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is an ideology initiated by Jacksonian Democrats that stated that Americans have a divine right to conquer and inhabit the western lands–even if that meant forcing the Native Americans to relocate. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which segregated Native Americans on reservations and began the “system of appropriating Indian land and undermining Indian culture.” This act would prove that the most important elements of American Exceptionalism: liberty, equality, and opportunity, could only be pursued by Anglo-Americans. . . .

The inherent flaws of the American Dream are exposed through literary works of many early-to-mid-twentieth century authors. Their works demonstrate a disenchantment with society and a disbelief in the achievability of the American Dream. In his most popular work The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald shows the ugliness of classism in a so-called class-less society. The novel also examines the crassness of flashy materialism and the vulgarity with which it is handled by the privileged. In her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry shows the repulsiveness of a deeply racist society that fights to keep its prejudices rather than let them go. In his play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller openly displays the harshness of economic realities and creates a dramatic tension where the American Dream can ironically only be achieved by educated realists, no by dreamers. American Exceptionalism is not directly addressed in any of the works. It seems as though it is less fertile dramatic ground for literary artists. The novels and plays proffer the grim truth of the American Dream, which is largely denied to the African American people and lower classes. If the American Dream is restricted from Americans, how can America pride itself on the assertion that it offers its people freedom and justice?

The ideas of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism evolved over time. The roots of these ideas came with the Puritans. For them, as the American Dream represented a society built on values such as labor, education, piety, republicanism, close-knit families, and individuality. Wealth was not something to be pursued, but secondary to the preferred concept of economic competency, or the ability to support oneself and one’s family. By the time of the Gold Rush–and likely on account of the Gold Rush–the American Dream had devolved into one of materialism with less emphasis on the treasured family unit, devoutness, and education. Americans searched for the perfect life, which now meant a life defined by wealth. People were often willing to sacrifice familial contentment for affluence, forgetting that happiness and material success cannot be equated.

American Exceptionalism continued to represent a belief that the United States was a uniquely virtuous nation, which loved peace, nurtured liberty, respected human rights, and embraced the rule of law. However, this concept of exceptionalism became more and more inaccurate in its reflection of society. In a nation where segregation and racial discrimination were prominent, how could there be a universal respect for human rights? Until the twentieth century, human rights seem to be a value that was extended only to the white population. Native Americans, African Americans, and women have experienced more difficulty in reaching the promise of the American Dream over time.

Throughout the paper, Damvakaris effortlessly demonstrates the tension between the ideals of American exceptionalism and its realities on the ground in history and as expressed in literature. She also points to a paradox inherent in the American dream that exists particularly for immigrants. Perhaps she and her family have experienced this paradox first hand. I’ll let her continue–

The aforementioned reality has allowed scholars such as Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, both Yale professors, to consider the paradox of success in foreign minorities. First generation immigrants often succeed in America more than people who have been here for more than two or three generations. Chua and Rubenfeld are the authors of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. In this book, they cite examples that show the stark contrast between minorities in America and the majority of American people. They discern that students who represent the minority in the United States, such as Asian-Americans, Mormons, Jews, Cuban-Americans, Persian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, and Indians are “disproportionately successful in terms of conventional metrics like income or upward mobility and educational attainment.” They go on to state that their success lies in their “impulse control, feelings of superiority, and feelings of insecurity.” By “impulse control” she means they are disciplined enough to persevere and make their dreams become reality. “Feelings of superiority” means that they have their own sense of exceptionalism, that they are themselves distinguished individuals who can and will succeed. By the same token though, they also feel a deep sense of insecurity stemming from their fear they they are “not quite accepted by mainstream America.”

Immigrants come to this country and often feel like an anonymous mass of outsiders. Their lack of identity fills them with spite against those who are critical of their culture and of their individual worth. Their desire to be acknowledged as capable people is displayed in their feverish need to prove themselves and show that they are assuredly qualified to compete with those native to the country. Through their pertinacity and their unmitigated fortitude they propel themselves to success. Their constant battle to triumph and secure their future compels them to “outperform the norm.”

Damvakaris’ essay is helpful because in it, she shows us the complex nuances that are present in the concept of exceptionalism. Since the idea of American exceptionalism does not cohere without that of justice, what happens to the idea when justice is absent? And what happens when American exceptionalism comes into contact with the exceptionalisms of other people groups? We Americans are not the only ones who are convinced of our own superiority.

This essay sets the stage for the others to follow over the next several days. Enjoy the series, and feel free to post comments.

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