Education, Ability, and the American Dream

Posted by Tracy Hood Ballinger on

When I asked my 11 year old son what The American Dream was, he replied, “A catchphrase about what people want.”  When I probed what they would want, he said “I don’t know, something patriotic.” Was it realistic to expect that he’d heard the phrase in its usual context by grade 5?  Maybe not.  What would I have answered at his age in 1987?

I can’t be sure, but The Secret of My Success, released that year, has always been one of my favorite movies and Michael J. Fox as Brantley Foster/Carlton Whitfield definitely epitomized the realization of The American Dream. Certainly, messages like that fostered my visceral understanding of the phrase:

  • Anyone can become anything they want to be.

  • No goal is outside your reach if you try hard enough or fall into the right kind of luck.

  • Social class is not a birthright.

The small part of me that is a cynic views my son’s answers, so different than what I envision mine would have been, as a confirmation of the dour outlook in Robert D. Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis – the dream of upward mobility, rags-to-riches, financial success for all has become a fantasy, not a realistic goal for kids growing up today.

I agree with the conclusions of the book (and greatly appreciate that Mr. Putnam puts neither the blame for nor solution for the growing opportunity gap at the feet of teachers and schools). But I think the origin of the phrase "American dream" can offer a different insight. James Adams is credited with coining the phrase in his book, The Epic of America, in 1931.  Here are two quotes explaining his vision of this ideal:

“the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

“a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of fortuitous circumstance of birth or position” 

Did you catch the missing element from my original understanding?  Ability, innate capability, matters. Our brains are not all created equal, and yet we too often equate intellectual capacity and capability with human worth, the value of a person as an individual, their ability to contribute meaningfully to society.  For a long time in the United States, that value has been tied to a college degree.

As a member of the inaugural cohort of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for MBA in Educational Leadership at the University of Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to visit Switzerland to learn more about how and why their education system is successful.  We were looking for interplays between government and business, policy and practice.  But what was most striking was the cultural pride in their approach to educational conclusions. Education is compulsory and uniform for the primary and lower secondary levels (up to about age 15). The upper secondary programs are split into academic and vocational paths and in the eyes of the Swiss, leaving school with a diploma or a certification are equally valued and valuable conclusions. The paths to either outcome are fluid and overlapping – students are not locked into one particular exit based on their entrance. Ability, interests, personal priorities, and a wide host of other factors, allow students and families to determine what is the best end-result of time in school.

What would that look like in America if the Dream of success were actually tied to helping every student “attain the fullest stature of which they innately capable”? And what if we let every student develop into that fullest stature at their own pace until their brains had started maturing?  What could happen if we truly mean college and career ready (as in college or career as well as college then career) and then actually esteemed all career paths equally, even if not all of them required a college degree? 

Right now, my son wants to be a doctor and so far he is showing potential and passion for that future.  But he also is pretty passionate about videogames and talks about wanting to have a job designing them. One of those paths would not require college, the other would; one could let his earning potential start immediately, the other only after an extended time and financial investment. Factors like job availability, work environment, opportunities for travel, mental stimulation, sense of fulfillment, available time with friends and family aren’t directly tied to college degrees. My pride will follow the outcome that lets him attain the future he wants, not in the path he took to get there.


T. Ballinger.jpg Tracy Hood Ballinger is State Director for Carpe Diem Innovative Schools Indiana. Her education career started as a physics and AP Physics teacher at Plainfield High School for 13 years. She holds a BA in Physics from Hanover College, MS in Science Education from Purdue University, and MBA from University of Indianapolis. 

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