The American Dream
The United States of America is one of the most powerful nations in the world. Its film, music and other entertainment products are more widely dispersed than any other countries’ and as a result the country has a reputation that eclipses even wealthier nations’. This draws many immigrants from around the world in pursuit of a concept known as the American Dream. But what does that really mean?
Initially, America as a landmass was the home of a thriving native population that was in many cases nomadic. This left large wide open spaces of land that could be settled if one so desired. When the initial immigrants came from Europe, they saw this as a gift from God. They settled areas that were available and through what was known as Manifest destiny, devised a plan to take the land from its original owners. Through this method, many who arrived in America with nothing or very little were able to work hard and become comfortable or even wealthy. This came at the expense of others, however, which is a point that is rarely mentioned.
Not long after these large tracts of land were forcibly taken, people were kidnapped from Africa and forced to work on them. As a result, the initial settlers became land owners and slave ‘owners’ and were able to amass large profits because their labor costs were very low. This created more wealth, if only for one segment of society, and many people began to see America as a land of opportunity where hard work could eventually lead to success if one stayed around long enough.
After slavery was abolished and women gained their rights, America became known not only for its opportunities but for its meritocracy. This is the trait of success being available to anyone who works hard without any barriers being placed in their way. As a result, even more new waves of immigration took place and many of these people found that dream to be true. Unfortunately, economic downturns have led just as many people to see that dream as impossible. Some have even returned to their home countries after working for years at degrading jobs despite high qualifications.
Like most dreams, the American dream can stay just that without the proper amount of effort. There are still barriers to success in the form of ageism, racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, color-ism and class-ism. Those who work the hardest can achieve despite all of that.
From Theory to Practice
In Paradox and Dream, a 1966 essay on the American Dream, John Steinbeck writes, For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name. It is called the American Way of Life.' No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless. Yet a recent cover of Time Magazine reads The History of the American Dream Is It Real? Here, students explore the meaning of the American Dream by conducting interviews, sharing and assessing data, and writing papers based on their research to draw their own conclusions.
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- The American Dream Project: This assignment sheet, which is directed to students, explains the three-part nature of this project and paper.
- Steinbeck John. American and American and Selected Nonfiction. Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson, eds. New York: Penguin Books, 2012: In this 1966 essay, Steinbeck presents a picture of Americans as paradoxical and asks if the American Dream is even possible. An edited version of this essay can be found at http://politicalsystems.homestead.com/ParadoxAndDream.html
- Sidel, Ruth. On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream. New York: Viking, 1990: Sidel explores the impact of the American Dream on young women in the 1980s and 1990s.
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FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
In her book Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being, Deborah Dean describes writing mini-ethnographies, saying, Ethnography is a way to look at a culture; Wendy Bishop describes it as a representation of the lived experience of a convened culture (3). Reiff, citing Beverly Moss, explains that the main purpose of the ethnographic genre is to gain a comprehensive view of the social interactions, behaviors, and beliefs of a community or a social group(Meditating 42). This lesson allows students to explore this idea of shared beliefs within a culture and to then use genuine research (one-on-one interviews) to produce a paper that examines the shared belief in the American Dream. As Dean states, conducting research for ethnography requires students to use genres for authentic purposes, which provides them with clear connections between genres and contexts and helps them see genres as actions more than forms.
Dean, Deborah. Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2008.
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