A few years ago, I penned a quick essay for a European friend and high-school teacher. Its purpose was to educate a class of students, few of whom had ever been to America, on the meaning of the so-called American dream.
I recently stumbled across that essay. Looking back, I can hardly believe I wrote something so non-cynical and free of sarcasm.
Accidents will happen.
The American Dream – A Not So Simple Definition
If one believes historian James Truslow Adams, the American Dream is the unique and substantive quality of America ‘…which has lured millions to our shores.’ Of course it’s not nearly as simple as that. There are myriad ways in which one might define the hopes and dreams of an American, and while many are optimistic, others are just as pragmatic, even cynical. For as much as one man or woman might believe America is a land of endless opportunity, of boundless hope and liberty, there will always exist another who believes the opposite. No two views are likely to be the same.
Let us begin by describing the classical view, the idyllic American life as imagined in hearts and on paper, if not in reality. There exists an idea, however unattainable, that all American men and women possess equal opportunity for success, material gain, and personal fulfillment. Whether an American hails from the poorest city slum or from the farthest rural meadow, the ideal would preach that we are all the same, that no matter our pedigree we might hope to scale the rungs of happiness in whatever form that happiness might take. This is not a utopian view, but simply a giver of hope, an unspoken possibility that because of the freedoms intrinsic to the Constitution, we might all aspire to be greater than we presently are. This view of the American Dream would not have us believe that every man and woman is destined for fantastical prosperity, but instead that any person, no matter his or her beginnings, can hope for better than they have.
There also exists a more realistic view, a sensible way of believing in the American Dream without necessarily contradicting the idyllic hopes of our forefathers. The practical American man or woman might say that the Dream exists not in the forefront of every American’s mind, but instead upon the very periphery of our collective consciousness. While liberty, happiness, and success are possibilities, they are not always available or deserved. This view stresses that while one might grasp for all things wished and hoped for, without hard work and good fortune such dreams might never come to fruition. This view is not incompatible with the other, nor does it discount the great freedoms granted at America’s founding. It aims instead to promote the spirit of striving hard for success, rather than see America’s hopes and aspirations founder while waiting idly for good things to come.
There are those who say the American Dream is dead, that the fantasy of America’s youth has given way to the cynicism of maturity. Only the individual knows for certain. This dream, likes so many others, lives solely in the hearts and minds of the people.