The concept of an American Dream started with desires for religious freedom. By the 1800s, German immigrants came to America dreaming about upward mobility—something you couldn’t get in Europe. The 1900s saw the American Dream morph into consumerism—in order to avoid a post-war recession. (Go to college! Buy a house! We’ll give you a loan to have it all!)
Schools in the US have not so much created the Dream, but have clearly reinforced it. (No coincidence that the term American Dream emerged in 1931 just as compulsory schooling gained widespread traction.) It’s just that school is not a vehicle to get to the Dream. And in fact, the combination of compulsory school and a delusional American Dream is toxic for our children.
Chasing today’s American Dream (consumerism–upward mobility through wealth) is about letting external values define our own idea of success: Graduating college, getting a job, buying a house. These are all milestones we are raised to conquer, but they actually stifle our ability to define our own path.
The steps we are all encouraged to achieve the American Dream favor some people over others in ways we often don’t even notice.
College disproportionately harms girls. It’s harder to get into college for women than men. College does not make you more qualified for the workforce, and also delays entering the workforce, which is more harmful to women than men since women generally only want to work full-time before they have kids, so they have a very small window in order to grow a big career.
Dual-income homes disproportionately harm kids. Kids like being home with a parent. Of course. It’s nice for a kids to have someone around them who loves them. Middle-class parents do not need two parents working. If two parents are making equal incomes, then taking one away will not change a kid’s life.
Do the math. Even if both parents are making minimum wage, a parent does way more for the kids by being home than by making $10/hour. So when both parents choose to work outside the house, and no parent is at home, the choice is to benefit the parent’s pursuit of the American Dream. It’s putting the parents’ dreams before the taking care of the kids.
Buying a house disproportionately harms the middle class. If you are rich and you buy a house, you still have enough financial flexibility to make life choices as family needs arise. If you are middle class, you are locked into a huge financial commitment that will supersede other family needs.
And locking yourself into financial commitments snowballs. You move into a “good school district” and then you have to keep earning enough money to stay there. You commit to a mortgage and you can’t redirect that money to something you value more.
More than being unfair, though, the American Dream is a mirage. You cannot grow up to be anything, you cannot be richer than your parents, you cannot get paid to do what you love. Who comes up with this stuff, anyway?
Regardless of how it develops, our schools convince kids to play by the rules. You buy into the Dream and then you buy into the idea that the only way to get to the Dream is via school.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re already doubting school is the path to the good life. The next step is to doubt that the good life people have been telling you about is not really all that good after all.