When a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson defined America as a land that promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights, he laid out the vision for the American Dream.
But as time went on, and as the tiny, fragile nation exploded into a world powerhouse, these grandiose promises were frequently blunted by tyrannical (yet unsuccessful) threats. Many point to the ugly parts of our history as evidence of dashed hopes, as if the sins of slavery, segregation, and oppression override the timeless brilliance of our founding principles and the fruits of the first successful experiment in self-government.
Is “the American Dream” dead?
Progressives tend to think so. A scholar from the Brookings Institution, for example, claims that “the American dream is in tatters” due to economic inequality, a lack of hope, and dwindling public support of the poor. Another observer goes further, arguing that the American Dream “barely existed to begin with” because of “systemic racial inequality.” Some surrender to hopelessness: using data on wealth distribution and income inequality, they entertain “birth determinism,” a notion that “most of the people who are poor are so because they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.” The pessimists ask: how can an average young American defy the odds and achieve prosperity if “the top 0.1% owns as many assets as the bottom 90%”?
But macro-data often skews micro-realities. Everyday Americans don’t live in abstract data charts. In reality, you don’t need to be in the 1% in order to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. You don’t need a shining Ivy League degree to provide for your family and accumulate wealth. As a first-generation American who did not have the privilege of being born into favorable circumstances, my experience offers a direct counterfactual. Raised by a single mother in an impoverished household (by Western standards), I have never abandoned the hope that the American Dream is within my reach. I worked hard, studied harder, disciplined myself to save money even when making pennies, and persevered.
Friends and peers from my humble beginnings in the U.S., whether students of immigrant backgrounds or hourly coworkers, have also achieved the American Dream. Today, most, if not all, of them hold steady jobs, own homes and other assets, and teach their kids to believe that their lot in life is not predetermined by birth—that hard work, initiative, and grit will always pay off.
Countless other Americans share the same optimism. Even if times become hard, we resist the urge to give into self-pity and victimhood, while we find hope, possibilities, and opportunities amidst life’s inevitable challenges. In other words, we embrace individual agency.
Praising America as the “unfinished symphony” where “even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up,” author Ian Rowe defines agency as “free will guided by a moral sense of right and wrong.” In his gratifying new book Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for All Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power, Rowe prescribes a middle-of-the-road approach between two opposing ideologies: “blaming the system” and “blaming the victim.”
The transformative power of agency, according to Rowe, should be harnessed by virtuous public institutions, including those of family, faith, merit-based education, and entrepreneurship. However, the progressive apathy toward the American Dream has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in unambiguous ways. To start, those who decry income inequality as a key hindrance to social mobility conveniently forget the devasting effects of failed public policies in education and welfare—many of which were championed by progressives themselves—on families, communities, and society at large.
More importantly, instead of fostering individual agency, major American higher education institutions have turned into harbingers of despair, hopelessness, and disempowerment.
Stanford University, for instance, recently published a “language guide” to address “harmful language, including racist, violent and biased language.” The guide urges Stanford students and faculty to switch the word “American” with the phrase “U.S. citizen” because the former “often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating the U.S. is the most important country in the Americas.” This microaggression warning is couched in the school’s newfound commitment to anti-bias, antiracism, allyship, and other ideological constructs. Its “Antiracism Toolkit” claims that American society “privileges white people and whiteness” and considers “racist ideas” to be “normal.”
“Whiteness” is a popular topic on college campuses nowadays. A University of Chicago professor, who is white, proposed to teach a new course titled “The Problem of Whiteness,” which “examines the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens drawing from classic and contemporary works of critical race theory.” A Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts professor, who is also white, has a new book called Deflective Whiteness: Co-opting Black & Latinx Identity Politics, which blasts white people’s “appropriation of indigenous imagery” and the prevalence of white supremacy.
Prizing anti-racism, equity, and ideological conformity, elite American colleges and universities help reinforce the dangerous vision that America is plagued by systemic inequities, and that the American Dream is merely a myth devised by the rich to pacify the less fortunate. Doing so, these institutions signal to young Americans, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, that the future awaiting them is bleak, unless they partake in the anti-capitalist, anti-democratic revolution.
Certainly, many serious thinkers, both within and outside the ivory tower, reject the victimhood narrative of contemporary America. They believe in innovative policy solutions, with human agency at the center, rather than radical systemic changes, because the foundational confines of equality, merit, and freedom are able to self-diagnose and heal. But too often, these culturally heterodox thinkers don’t have platforms large enough to promote their views and to compete with universities and the mainstream media.
The suppression of free speech continues to plague American higher education. The 2022-2023 College Free Speech Rankings, released by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), found that 63% of college students worried about reputational damage if they voiced their opinions, while 63% deemed shouting down controversial speakers acceptable.
A vital step toward reviving the American Dream, the principled celebration of agency and fulfillment, is a concerted effort among students, professors, and other education stakeholders. They need to unapologetically demand academic freedom and free speech, so much so that positive proposals on the limitless potential of individual agency can be fostered. With that, the dream that one’s birth doesn’t determine one’s journey will be renewed as a living possibility, rather than a myth.
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