Global education and the 'American Dream'

Put most simply, the ‘American Dream’ is the belief that everyone has a reasonable chance – although not a guarantee – of achieving success through means under their own control. It is the assurance that personal qualities such as hard work, frugality, honesty and self-discipline can make for a good life, however you (or I) may define that.

[I borrow this penetrating definition from Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild, whose 1995 book Facing Up to the American Dream is the seminal work on the topic.]

This powerfully appealing, but not uncontroversial, idea permeates the culture of the United States and has done so for hundreds of years. However, versions of this idea also have been embraced by countless millions (if not billions) of people around the world.

Hence, there is an ‘Indian dream’, a ‘Chinese dream’, a ‘Brazilian dream’ and so on. Each of these has its own idiosyncrasies, but most follow the same basic structure: if you work hard and have good character, you can get ahead and achieve success.

This idea also has significant implications for global education, and higher education in general, worldwide.

Global education, properly conceived, can help learners refine their personal dreams of success while simultaneously acquiring the capabilities needed to pursue these dreams.

Poorly conceived, however, global education, like the American Dream itself, can overemphasise the pursuit of material wealth and leave learners ignorant of how systemic and structural inequalities in most, if not all, societies frustrate so many dreamers and so many of their dreams.

Criticisms of the American Dream

The American Dream, as popular as it is, is not unquestioningly embraced by everyone.

Many criticisms of the American Dream focus on its preoccupation with money and the things that money can buy. From this perspective, the American Dream is flawed because it measures success in the wrong way – it is overly materialistic and consumeristic. As writer Maurice Sendak put it: "There must be more to life than having everything!"

It does appear that many people both within and beyond the US uncritically accept the accumulation of wealth as the primary measure of success.

For some, at least, this may be for the same reason that economists employ concepts like gross domestic product to represent the success of a nation. These concepts may not reflect an intrinsic good, but they are easy to measure and compare.

You know that you are more successful than me when you have more money and when this money is evidenced by 'bling' – or, more academically, what US economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen called 'conspicuous consumption'.

However, there is nothing that intrinsically links the American Dream to wealth, material possessions or creature comforts. Indeed people can and have imagined and sought alternative ways of achieving success that are not centred on wealth.

However, this is not easy to do when the dominant culture, perpetuated by film, television, advertising etc, favours wealth as the sine qua non of success.

Although understandings of success are actually very much culturally conditioned, authentic measures may also be highly personal and idiosyncratic.

Fame. Health. Honour. Political office. Happiness. Peace and contentment. Spiritual wellbeing. Religious salvation. Intellectual stimulation. Writing a book. Athletic performance. Sexual conquest. Children. Domestic bliss. Perhaps even the number of friends, followers, likes or views you have on the internet. All of these are authentic measures of success for some people.

The sorts of criticisms of the American Dream are really criticisms of the dominant culture that privileges materialism and consumerism over other measures of success. They are criticisms of what has become of the American Dream and also, in a way, defences of what it could or should be.

The recent movement by some scholars to calculate the gross domestic happiness of a country, in contrast with a simple financial measure, both expands the universe of goods constituting success and allows for cultural variety within this expanded universe.

Other cogent criticisms of the American Dream focus on the socio-economic and institutional obstacles to the achievement of success by disadvantaged or disenfranchised groups, which may include women, racial, ethnic or religious minorities, the poor or their children.

From this perspective, the American Dream offers a false promise of fair and equal opportunity to achieve success by ignoring the many ways in which the social order fails to recognise and reward merit.

According to this criticism, by ignoring structural and systemic inequalities (both brutal and subtle) the American Dream ideology places blame on the individual for failing to achieve success. In other words, if you have not succeeded then it must somehow be your fault. You must be lazy or, possibly, on drugs.

The well-worn phrase ‘pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps’ captures this aspect of the American Dream, notwithstanding how physiologically improbable, as well as highly anachronistic, this act is.

The corollary to this conceptualisation is the false assumption that if you demonstrate outward signs of success (that is, bling) then you must be hardworking or virtuous or otherwise worthy.

In other words, if you are successful then you must (somehow) deserve to be successful, even though in reality your success may be due to luck, privilege, corruption or even criminality, rather than good character and hard work.

Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was, among other things, a criticism of this sort. King famously dreamed of a country in which people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. In other words, he dreamed of a socio-economic system in which everyone really does have a fair and equal chance of success.

King’s purpose was not to condemn the American Dream, per se, but to condemn the political, social and economic obstacles that not only deprived African-Americans of that dream, but which prevented countless millions of poor and oppressed people around the world from a reasonable chance at pursuing and achieving success, however that success might be understood or measured.

Hence, this criticism, too, is more like a defence of a dream unfulfilled than it is a condemnation of the dream as such.

American Dream in global context

As intrinsic as the American Dream is to American culture, it is not an idea or ideology embraced by Americans alone. Indeed, its promise of success through personal virtue and hard work continues to beckon immigrants from around the world to the shores and borders of the United States.

Today, more than 40 million foreign-born people live and work in the United States, pursuing their own dreams of success. This is in spite of structural obstacles that are often stacked against them. It is not an accident, for instance, that wealthy investors are fast-tracked for permanent residency in the US while ordinary workers are not.

Fortunately, people need not emigrate from their homelands to seek the American Dream on American soil.

Indeed, although more than one million people still come to live in the US each year through legal immigration, many millions more choose to tap into growing opportunities for prosperity through ‘glocal’ economic activities without ever leaving home or exchanging their familiar and valued cultural mores for those of the United States.

The pursuit of their authentic dreams – be they Nigerian, Russian or Korean – appear more and more to be achievable without resorting to immigration. Although, on the flip side, appearances can be deceiving and there is no shortage of structural and systemic inequalities in most, if not all, countries, which thwart the pursuit of success.

Even so, people around the world are increasingly embracing the central idea of the American Dream to transform (gradually) their own homelands, creating educational, legal and economic systems that enable fair and equal opportunity for their countries.

By fighting against corruption and inequality, and by fighting for the rule of law and education for all, these countries are bringing dreams of success to life for their citizens.

In other words, far from being just another US export or an example of cultural imperialism like Coca-Cola, McDonalds or Mickey Mouse, the American Dream in its richest form becomes a truly global dream with myriad local implications and possibilities.

A shattering dream?

But even as the American Dream ideology rides the wave of globalisation, it is in danger of being caught in globalisation’s undertow.

As global competition increases through economic development and as educational systems abroad expand and improve, the unique position of the United States in the world economy and the exceptional opportunities made available to people living in the United States – in spite of grave imperfections – have begun to decline.

Facing increased competition, and diminishing prospects, many Americans have turned to government to restore their former economic supremacy and structural advantage, generally through 'exceptions' to the otherwise sacrosanct principles of free trade.

However, so as not to call entirely into question either the explicit belief that success is a function of individual effort or the implicit belief that people who fail to succeed have only themselves to blame, they also have turned to education, and global education in particular, as the prescription for personal success in the global marketplace.

In particular, higher education is under mounting pressure to demonstrate its worth with reference to the financial success of graduates. Indeed, each higher education institution is under pressure to prove that its graduates earn more than the graduates of other institutions and a growing industry has developed to capture this data.

The US is far from alone in this regard and in fact lags behind the UK, for example, in systematically measuring outcomes such as employability and income.

Two models of global education

All of this raises questions about what can and should be taught in our institutions in response to the pressures and opportunities of globalisation. And indeed, over the past 20 years or so, two very different models of global education have emerged in response to globalisation.

One of them is instrumental (and professionally-oriented) while the other is liberal (in the broadest sense). The former can be understood as a backlash to intense criticisms of universities for failure to produce good financial outcomes for graduates whereas the latter is a backlash to the backlash.

Understood instrumentally, global education provides us with a set of tools needed to pursue success narrowly (but popularly) conceived.

This model seeks to prepare graduates for success in the global marketplace and views education as the way to ‘learn skills’ and ‘get ahead’. In other words, education opens one very significant door to success, measured in materialistic terms – leading me to money and the things money can buy.

This first – or ‘professional education’ – model is no longer especially controversial, even among those who decry any demand for relevance in the university curriculum as a sign that institutions of higher education are becoming vocational ‘trade schools’.

Indeed, such concerns are being increasing drowned out by voices asserting that academic institutions have a moral responsibility to serve as engines for social mobility, social equality and social justice. In other words, as historian Howard Zinn put it: "The resources of a university, of a college, should not be wasted in merely academic pursuits."

The second model seeks to prepare graduates for globalisation in a civic, ethical and humanitarian, rather than merely financial, sense.

As people and places grow increasingly interdependent and the causes and solutions to global problems grow increasingly opaque, individuals must possess the capacities and competencies needed to enjoy the rights and fulfill the responsibilities of membership in the global community.

This second model is infused with what often is called ‘liberal education’ – indeed, it is liberal education in global form.

Liberal education does more than prepare me for a job, or even for a career. It opens a door to the multiverse of measures of success. It equips each of us to think seriously about what success means to us and to make informed choices among myriad meanings of success.

It can and should be an opportunity to explore new ways of thinking and seeing, engage in critical thinking self-development and ultimately achieve a set of commitments, passions and purposes that are uniquely one’s own.

That is to say, it is a direct challenge to any and all narrow, limited or cramped understandings of the American Dream.

Moreover, this model helps learners understand, and appreciate, that others in their community (and around the world) share the desire for success – indeed, that the desire for success is a universal human aspiration – but that they may measure success differently.

Further, it helps people appreciate that there are illegitimate structural obstacles (for example political, social, legal and economic barriers) to pursuing their own dreams of success.

Extreme poverty, inadequate public health, violence and crime, inadequacy of basic schooling – and many other factors – create often impossible barriers to the reasonable achievement of success, regardless of how success may be measured.

Liberal education opens our eyes to those barriers, their effects and the fundamental injustice of them. It can even make us uncomfortable with our comforts.

The paradox

And herein we find the paradox.

Just as global education strives to prepare students to pursue the American Dream, or one of its many global variants, it simultaneously challenges some of its faulty premises. On the one hand, it helps make the American Dream possible for individuals, but at the same time it exposes the systemic and structural obstacles to the pursuit of success.

The paradox, however, is only fully visible when global education encompasses both approaches, the liberal and the professional.

It seems to me that each model of global education has something going for it and neither, on its own, is sufficient.

Global education that overemphasises the instrumental dimension, and excludes the liberal dimension, calls upon young people to join a rat race that may very well be rigged against them – and then to accept full blame for their own failure, regardless of the background economic and social realities.

In contrast, global education that overemphasises the liberal dimension, and excludes the instrumental, invites pathologies of inertia and hopelessness, and does not give young people a fighting chance to advance themselves, especially when the odds are long.

In other words, an academic degree that is predicated entirely upon an ethic of money-making can scarcely be called an 'education', while an academic degree that is purely academic, in the pejorative sense, leaves learners practically resourceless in a hard, competitive – and often unfair – world.

It is incumbent, therefore, upon educators, students, parents and civic and business leaders to ensure that we do not make a false, forced and reckless choice between liberal and professional models of global education.

Indeed, only by achieving a balance between the two imperatives will our institutions truly serve our students and our societies, as well as their present and future dreams.

* Jason Scorza is secretary-general of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, and vice provost for international education at Fairleigh Dickinson University. This article is based on his recent Tedx Talk. The IAUP holds its XVII IAUP Triennial Conference in Yokohama, Japan, from 11-14 June 2014.