Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The American Dream and Education: Wanting Better for Our Kids

I have a friend on Twitter, @blackgirlinmain (you can read her blog at www.blackgirlinmaine.com) who I have some of the best conversations with. Recently she was talking about the part of the American Dream that tells us if we go to college, we’ll get a good job . . . and how that really isn’t true anymore.

One used to be able to earn a good living as a tradesman, and college was for those going into professional work. A bachelor’s degree was something to shoot for and now it’s often the bare minimum expected, even in jobs that didn’t require them in the past. A bachelor’s degree is almost the new high school diploma!

Part of American Dream is that you should/must go to college, and that you want to shoot for as prestigious a university as possible because of how it looks on a resume and the high caliber education you’ll get there. Of course, the “better” the school, the more expensive it is.

One of the ideas that has become part of our American culture is that as parents, we should want our children to have better or more than we had ourselves. We want them to do better in school, make more money, have better jobs, have a better/bigger house, live in a better neighborhood. There is the idea that wanting this for your children is what good parents do. It’s become so accepted that no one really questions the virtue of these values. They aren’t seen as optional perspectives to hold – OF COURSE everyone wants their children to have better than they had.

I was discussing this with someone once – someone who is undeniably upper middle class. He has a Ph.D. makes a VERY nice living (so does his wife) and lives in a posh area in a gorgeous, expensive home. We were discussing the economy and he made an offhand remark that he wants his lifestyle to stay the same. I told him I wanted to stay “working class”, and he was surprised to hear that. People are surprised every time I tell them that. Shouldn’t I want my children to have an easier life than I have had?

The truth is, I don’t. I think that just like the idea of being “colorblind”, the idea of wanting more/better for your kids was probably well-intended, but has had a negative impact on our society and culture. There are only so many steps up the proverbial ladder one can climb, and as more and more people try to crowd onto the ladder, the harder it becomes to move up to the next step . . . yet we’re still taught that we should fight to get up that ladder.

Additionally, I think the idea that we should always be trying for more, for better, leaks out into everything we do. We must have a better car/house/phone/wardrobe/etc – why? And if you can’t get better, what happens to you? How many people were raised in middle and upper-middle class families, who have struggled to attain that lifestyle as adults, and feel ASHAMED because of their struggle? Ashamed to live in an apartment instead of being able to buy a house? Ashamed that they could only finance an education at a state university? Ashamed because they had to buy a used car? How many are ashamed at the idea of living a more working-class lifestyle, so they go into incredible debt to finance a “better” education, home, car, lifestyle? And where did it get them? Do they feel “safe” that no one will figure out how broke they are? Or are they always worried that things will crumble and they won’t be able to set themselves up the way their parents did?

I know that not all people who came from middle and upper-middle class families go through these struggles, and I know that everyone who struggles doesn’t feel shame over it. I see it quite often in my peers, though – and I don’t want that for my children.

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