American Dream Features the Individual; Justice Is the Community’s Solution

In a fascinating academic study, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, sociologist Heather Beth Johnson and a group of researchers conduct interviews to try to discover how we “acknowledge structured inequality as we teach our children that individual achievement determines life chances.”

She is exploring our society’s cultural narrative of the American Dream, the idea that we live in a meritocracy where all can succeed if we work hard—where if we are strategic and patient, we can all win—where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.  The book is filled with transcripts of the interviews the researchers conduct.  Here is a typical sample:

  • Interviewer: “Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?
  • Responder: “Yeah.”
  • Interviewer: “So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?”
  • Responder: “Sure.  Definitely.”
  • Interviewer: “Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?”
  • Responder: “That’s a very good definition.”
  • Interviewer: “Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?”
  • Responder: “Yes.  Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.”

Again and again those who are interviewed acknowledge structural inequality—that some people face far greater barriers than others—but they also explain that with hard work, we all have an equal chance.

In a brand new, expanded and revised edition of his 2009 education philosophy, Why School?, UCLA professor and well known education writer Mike Rose adds a chapter to address the latest pop psychology attempt to explain the American Dream in a way that makes it possible for the poorest children to succeed at school despite the challenges segregation and poverty present.  Rose has just shared this chapter, Being Careful about Character, on his website as a delicious morsel to tempt us to get the book and read more.

Introducing the new chapter on his website, Rose writes about books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: “I certainly don’t dispute the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility and, as is the case with so many teachers, do my best to foster them, but I am also worried that we, once again, are seeking a miracle cure for the entrenched social problems of poverty and inequality. What follows is a kind of extended cautionary tale.”

The chapter follows, and I urge you to read it and then get the new version of the book.  Rose concludes the chapter on character-strengthening this way: “But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.”

The narrative of the American Dream is a story of the triumph of individuals who are able through grit and character to overcome whatever their individual circumstances may be.  Another way to look at all this is through the ethical lens of the world’s major religions.  Not one of them defines justice individually.  Justice is about the responsibility—the obligation—of a society to create conditions where all can contribute.  I like the definition of justice presented by the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., in a relatively old book, first published in 1988, Christian Perspectives on Politics:

“Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be  participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (pp. 216-217)

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3 thoughts on “American Dream Features the Individual; Justice Is the Community’s Solution

  1. I’m half way through Rose’s book, “Why School?” It is beautifully written. (Thanks, Jan, for alerting us to it a while back.) It is an excellent complement to Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error.” If anyone is trying to introduce a relative novice to all of the public policy issues facing schools these days, Rose would be a good place to start as it is briefer, contains less data and documentation, and includes very personal, poignant stories. Then move on to Ravitch for “school reform 201” with its great depth and breadth of scholarship. Both write with the marvelous passion of wonderful educators.

  2. If you want to consider ‘structural inequality,’ get a copy of this month’s MOTHER JONES & read “What if everything you knew about poverty was wrong? {March-April 2014:pp. 42ff.} by Stephanie Mencimer. It’s about “researcher Kathryn Edin” who “left the ivory tower for the streets of Camden—and turned sociology upside down.” Her book, co-authored by husband Tim Nelson, is “Doing the best I can: Fatherhood in the Inner City” & with interviews primarily with those who are ‘off the census’ and not even counted in conventional research or statistics. A second more commercially aware book is in the making. Most of us would not accept as ‘justice’ what is the everyday experience of her subjects!

  3. Another excellent blog, Jan. The definition of justice is more about polity (how we live together) than the individual. But in America, the commonly accepted idea of leave me alone so I can get mine and you can get yours if your lucky ignores the biblical concept of justice for all.

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