Higher Education And The American Dream

What is your favorite subject to ponder? A recent movie, right and wrong, family, or is it something else? I love to think. I at times can be a Walter Mitty, especially when I am in a dispute with someone. If he says this then I will counter with that, or if I win this then I will climb that. Many what ifs play through my mind at times. Am I happy, or am I sad, it really depends on my perspective on things.

Take the American dream. I have written in previous blogs that I still believe in the American dream, but today I was thinking about what exactly is the American dream? Is it a white house with a picket fence? I have heard it described as such. Some would say that it is every increasing wealth. I am not too sure if buy that one.

James Truslow Adams wrote the book “The Epic of America,” which is where he coined the phrase and defined it as “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others, for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Hmm, I like this definition. I like living in a place where I can rise as high as I am capable of accomplishing, regardless of whether I was born in the inner city or on a farm.

The Stanford Graduate School of Education is completing a three-year study where they have asked native born and immigrant youth what they think of the American dream. William Damon described two responses in particular. A native-born student reaffirmed the position posited above. “I think the American dream is that people can be who they are. Like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of action and stuff.” An immigrant student from India answered in a similar fashion, “he was proud to say that I’m from that heritage and culture, but I’m proud of my American culture as well.” The American dream to this young man from India was to “find a good job, make a good living, and uphold your duties to your country in all ways possible.”

The American dream is alive and well. However, the only way it will be reinforced is through hard work. I was very troubled by an article this morning in the paper. The title, “We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn,” tells you what this article is about. It attempted to be an expose of a state of higher education that is in trouble. I would dismiss this article if it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this phenomenon occur. “Students arrive woefully academically unprepared; students study little, party much and lack any semblance of internalized discipline; pride in work is supplanted by expediency; and the whole enterprise is treated as a system to be gamed in which plagiarism and cheating abound.” Although these are huge generalities, there are elements of truth, and there are exceptions.

I also agree with Geoffry Collier when he states there are two attitudes that are causing these problems. “Social preoccupations trump the academic part of residential education, which occupies precious little of the student’s time or emotions.” I must admit this is true. I have seen students give minimal effort, expecting high grades. They just didn’t have the time to complete the work at a high quality level because they were too busy playing video games.

As serious as this is I think reason two is even more important. It reflects the pragmatic nature of our society. The “student’s view of education is strictly instrumental and credentialist. They regard the entire enterprise as a series of hoops they must jump through to obtain their 120 credits, which they blindly view as an automatic licensure for adulthood and a good job, an increasingly problematic belief.”

On our side, the Professors, we play along, according to Collier, because we have a good racket going. The Professors are doing their research, which is more important than teaching. Also, they want to be popular with the students, or they will get snow shoved into their cars. Collier then argues that everyone associated with the system is “incentivized to maintain low standards.” I really disagree with his statements about faculty.

I don’t know how it is at other institutions, but where I teach we have committed individuals who want students to learn. We work hard to create lesson plans that are interesting, and we work with students on a personal level to ensure they see the value of learning. This is not to say that there are not students at our college who see the system as a series of ridiculous hoops they must jump through. I know several students that refuse to attempt to study a viewpoint different than their own. This leads to a certain level of narrow mindedness that I think will hold them back in their future careers.

My point is that there is a connection of the American dream with education. Not the anemic system that Collier describes but a vibrant personal system where students and faculty attempt to grapple with the weightier issues of life. This is what a liberal arts education can give a student.

I work side by side with faculty that strongly believe this is our goal. They are not just presenting PowerPoint slides at breakneck speed, ask if the student is getting it, and then move on. No, these faculty members are taking the time to engage and encourage students to learn. We recognize that when a student learns how to learn, the American dream will become a reality.

Now I am off to Honduras. See you in a week.

And that is my thought for the day!

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