Is the American Dream a Delusion?

"My uncle came to this country with nothing. Nothing. And now he has a lucrative carpet business and season tickets to the Mets," says one of my students, a wide-eyed, 18-year-old Pakistani immigrant, on a Monday evening in room 605, the light just disappearing behind the Manhattan skyscrapers through the windows.

As a gender studies professor at Hunter College -- one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the nation -- I am used to provoking passionate and often personal reactions in my students. We drift onto some fairly dangerous ground -- abortion, rape, love, war -- but after two and half years of teaching this material I have realized that I am never so uncomfortable as when class discussion turns to the American Dream.

You know the story: Once upon a time there was a hardworking, courageous young man, born in a poor family, who came to America, put in blood, sweat and tears, and eventually found riches and respect. But knowing the statistics on social mobility and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, I just can't stomach this "happily ever after" scenario. It is too clean. Real life is fully of messy things like racism and the wage gap and child care and nepotism.

The working-class students in my class are often struggling, and sometimes failing, with full-time jobs and full-time academic loads. You might predict that they would welcome the idea that if you're born poor, no matter how hard you work, sometimes success is still outside your grasp.

But semester after semester, student after student, when I suggest that the American Dream might be more fairy tale and less true story, I encounter the opposite reaction. As if by gut survival instinct, students hold up their favorite uncle or a distant cousin, or my personal favorite, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as evidence that the American Dream is alive and well.

Part of me wants to cringe, lecture them about how one success story is dangled in front of a struggling public so they won't get angry enough to revolt against an unfair system. How oppression can so easily be mistaken for personal failure. How many employers won't even look at their resumes if they don't see an Ivy League college at the top. But another part of me wants to keep my white, upper-middle-class mouth shut.

Many of these students' parents -- some of whom have left behind mothers, friends, respect and status in their countries of origin -- have sacrificed their lives on the altar of the American Dream. Some of my students are recent immigrants themselves, so relieved to have made it out of violent and poverty-stricken places like Haiti and Colombia that they aren't ready to criticize the country that is their haven. Others, American as apple pie, are the first to go to college in their families and believe ardently that this guarantees a better life. At what cost do I ask them to question their beliefs? What right do I have to deconstruct one of the foundations they stand on?

Discomfort produces learning; Piaget taught me that. When I ask my students to read about intersexuality, I know that they will be surprised and "weirded out," as they often put it, that sex may be more accurately thought of as a spectrum rather than a binary. This, of course, shatters their previous understanding of male and female, blue and pink, penis and vagina, but I find that they can usually process this exploration with a bit of distanced wonder. It doesn't appear to threaten their sense of self, as much as expand it.

But when it comes to exploring the validity of the American Dream, I find myself -- perhaps too sensitively -- afraid of breaking them. I can see that their feverish daily schedules from home to daycare to work to school to daycare to home, repeat, are running not on caffeine or a love of learning, but on potent "someday" dreams. They have landed in my class not by accident, but as one more small step in their destiny to make it big, they believe.

And maybe this is the crux of it after all. "Making it big," for my wide-eyed, 18-year-old Pakistani student, is not Bill Gates or Bill Clinton or even Bill Cosby. It is getting to see the Mets whenever he wants. For him, the American Dream is not so damaging because he has revisioned its scope.

But at the risk of falling into the same trap that my students sometimes do, I have to attest that he is not the rule. Many have dreams of Hummers and fame and multiple vacation homes. I don't want to be the pinprick that lets the air out of the swollen balloon of hope, but at the same time I desperately want them to see that their wholehearted belief in the American Dream is actually doing more to benefit people far richer and whiter than they are.

As long as they are distracted by their own dedication, they won't stop to question why the richest people in this country pay far less in taxes, proportionally, than the middle class. They won't have the time to organize against elitist candidates because they will be too busy working dead-end jobs. As a friend once explained to me, "The proletariat didn't rise up like Marx predicted because he was too tired after work. All he wanted to do was watch TV and have a beer."

I want to give my students an intellectual tool that can serve as an emotional cushion, convincing them that it isn't "all their faults" if things don't work out exactly as planned. I want them to imagine living in a genuinely more equal society, not just one that pays lip service to it. What could they accomplish if it didn't take a million-dollar budget to run for political office, and if people didn't hire their friends' kids, and if college was free?

So I push. I push beyond my own comfort zone. I certainly push beyond theirs. In fact, I put faith in my own version of the American Dream -- that dialogue makes people smarter, kinder, happier -- and hope that my students don't prove it a myth.


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