Stephen Stone
November 21, 2002
The dying American Dream
By Stephen Stone

The "American Dream" is one of the most commonly misunderstood ideals in American culture. The term is used loosely to mean just about anything from the acquisition of wealth, to home ownership, to moral license, to success in court against McDonald's--all without appreciation for the original significance of the Dream.

Because the American Dream is largely misunderstood, as well as taken for granted, it is in danger of disappearing altogether.

A case can be made, in fact, that the Dream no longer truly exists, but has been replaced by a rationing system that we call formal education--overseen, operated, and funded by government.

Government-metered opportunity

Initially heralded as the gateway to opportunity, our nation's education system has become the gatekeeper of opportunity. Unless we have passed through that system, we are denied access to a whole world of advantage and opportunity, no matter our actual knowledge, skill, or work ethic. That is especially true of the best opportunities and jobs--nearly all of which require an advanced diploma certifying not necessarily competence, but conformity to cultural and institutional norms.

Such a system of "meritocracy" is aggressively promoted by those who have a vested interest in it, in other words those who run it, who argue persuasively that we need our monopolistic education system to preserve and strengthen our republic. I see the truth, however, as the opposite. In my estimation, there is nothing that more effectively threatens the future our country--and that therefore diminishes and perverts the American Dream--than our intellectually and morally corrupt system of schooling, at all levels.

The fruit of this system is a watered-down facsimile of the American Dream throughout U.S. society, not the real thing.

To test the truth of this assessment, consider that if the American Dream were still truly alive today, none of us would ever need to do anything in order to "qualify" for an opportunity, other than develop genuine competence and knowledge, or display compelling interest--things any industrious person can gain largely on his own in today's world of easily accessible information, communication, and practical experience. The fact is, many kinds of knowledge and experience are withheld from all but a carefully screened elite who have worked their way up our educational system--who, in the parlance of schooling, have learned to "play the game."

Hence the words of one critic who said that our universities are engaged primarily in the business of "marketing social status."

Unfortunately, the problem is far worse than many of us imagine. Consider with me, if you will, what has happened to the Dream.

A definition

Socrates said, in essence, that all learning is defining. Learning involves putting words--precise words--to old ideas, in search of truth.

Any discussion of the "American Dream," therefore, must begin with its clear definition. To accurately construct this definition, we need to go no further than the Declaration of Independence, the inspiration for America's national ideals.

After affirming that all legitimate human rights are God-given, the Declaration declares that "among these [rights] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Such ideals, of course, are hollow without the freedom to pursue and apply them. Any meaningful definition of the American Dream, therefore, must center in the reasonable freedom actually to seek these three cherished ends--the pursuit of happiness, the exercise of liberty, and the sustaining (and protecting) of life. That is clearly the basis of the original American Dream.

In a word, the American Dream--if it has any meaning at all--is the freedom to choose exactly how we will undertake anything we wish to do in this life, provided that in doing so we respect the rights of all others to do the same thing.

Freedom and opportunity

Ultimately, the Dream is personal freedom, and that freedom exists only to the extent that we have actual opportunity. If we claim the freedom to choose our own employment, let's say, but are incarcerated in a prison, or otherwise are forced to live as a slave to anybody, to any government, or to any institution, our claim of "vocational freedom" is empty. Like many slaves (note that there are thousands of forms of slavery in which the slaves are unaware of their lot, or have simply accepted it), we may think we have vocational freedom simply because we are able to survive or succeed by complying with others' demands. But that is still slavery (and self-deception)--not true freedom of choice in vocational affairs.

Before going further, it is important to stress that the American Dream is not limited to "material success"--nor does it mean "getting rich." It is the freedom to TRY to live as we ourselves choose to live in all dimensions of life--material, spiritual, vocational, educational--in harmony with the divine laws of the Creator who gave us life and endowed us with natural rights. As long as we are law-abiding, as long as we are as concerned with the welfare and happiness of others as our own, we have every right to live exactly as we please--as we seek to follow the will of God in our individual lives.

That is the American Dream--inspired by the Declaration, and protected by the Constitution.

The measure of the dream

There is an additional dimension to the above definition of the Dream that needs mentioning before we can consider how well the Dream has survived. That dimension is the fact that the Dream exists only to the extent that it exists equally for all. If "all men are created equal," as the Declaration states, then all of us have an equal claim to whatever opportunities exist for any of us. The issue of equal opportunity (not "equal entitlements," "equal guarantees," or "equal outcomes," incidentally) is therefore central to the American Dream.

America was founded on the premise that we all have an equal right to pursue the same opportunities without unjust exclusion, interference, discrimination, or impediment--in harmony with the principle of freedom, and its expression in human creativity, ingenuity, and initiative. Our nation's initial greatness was the direct result of the fact that this ideal existed in broad strokes across our young nation, notwithstanding inevitable contradictions and inequities, including the fact that the American Dream was withheld from a whole class of Americans who were black. Even that anomaly in our history was ultimately forced to yield to the compelling principles found in our Declaration with which it was plainly out of harmony.

America became great in all areas of invention, science, letters, industry, arts, religion, and culture precisely because the American Dream made all such progress possible.

Today, however, America is in serious decline in these very areas--despite the mercy of God that keeps us afloat as a nation and our own fierce resilience as a people--because the Dream no longer exists on a universal scale in American society. Some semblance of it still exists, of course, and some of us today still have access to many wonderful opportunities--but the Dream itself has diminished to the point of near extinction, and where it appears to exist, that existence is largely an illusion, because the dream is not equally available to all.

The purpose of our constitutional republic

The theory of government on which our nation was founded is the notion that society as a whole is required, in principle, to yield to the divine rights of every person in that society. Consequently, the Constitution was created to protect the rights of the individual (or the minority) from tyranny by the collective or the majority.

It follows that the purpose of the Constitution is to guarantee to each individual the right to pursue the American Dream.

Unfortunately, as our Constitution has been increasingly gutted by revisionist judicial activism in our courts and by the self-serving agendas of special interests over the past century and a half, so has the Dream that the Constitution was meant to protect diminished. Any way we want to analyze the situation, all such inroads into constitutional guarantees amount to substantial destruction of the American Dream.

Consider the right of property, for instance, which is essential to the sustaining of life, the exercise of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Fifth Amendment plainly states that whenever government "takes" private property for public use--such as for public roads, or for public health and safety (by way of modern "zoning")--the government must pay "just compensation" to the owner. Yet, for roughly a century, a tradition has developed in the courts that has allowed local agencies and commissions to regulate virtually out of existence many citizens' right to use their property.

Thankfully, the Rehnquist Court issued a number of rulings that have helped to stem the tide of such oppression (see the Pacific Legal Foundation's website)--but the oppression is still alive and well across the breadth of our nation, nonetheless. And with that wide, deeply-entrenched tradition of land-use oppression has come a profound weakening of the American Dream for nearly all of us.

If we don't realize that, it is because we've never tried to develop a piece of property, or add on a room, or operate certain kinds of businesses from our home.

Bear in mind, as well, that the layers of bureaucracy that hinder normal land use add considerably not only to the escalating cost of housing, but to the cost of all goods and services produced by business or industry--so that all of us literally pay the price of oppressive land-use controls, as consumers. Such artificial meddling with the economy robs all of us of much-needed opportunity on a scale that is colossal--make no mistake.

Again, one overriding purpose of our Constitution is to protect our right to do creative, innocuous, industrious things with our property without undue interference from others or from government. What we find today, unfortunately, is government and special interests preventing us from living the American Dream on our land, in our homes, and with our private property. The result is not just loss of personal liberty or the right to pursue our individual happiness, but the corruption of our nation and severe loss of our nation's productivity.

Nothing hampers our nation's economy more than oppressive, unreasonable, unconstitutional land-use laws. The environmental movement knows this full well and uses such laws to hold countless industrious Americans hostage.

Consider, further, that the basis of socialism is collective or governmental control of land. Allowing people the illusion of land ownership, while taking away their right to use their land as they reasonably choose, is socialistic and destructive to the American Dream.

With that basis, let's see how the American Dream is faring in the influential area of education.

Education

As this essay asserted at the beginning, the original American Dream has largely been supplanted by government-sponsored "education." Nearly all Americans consider this a good thing--since education is hypothetically "free" for all (a myth from the system's inception, for from the outset the means of providing such free schooling was loss of the right of property), and thus, it is argued, opportunity itself becomes equally free (another myth--ask any English graduate now driving a delivery truck).

The problem with this idyllic vision is that it diminishes--not enhances--freedom. By letting the government educate us (all the way through medical school), we haven't gained freedom--or opportunity--at all. We've lost it, for such loss is inevitable any time we turn to government to take care of us in any manner or degree.

The simple fact that this comprehensive education system of ours is run by the government from top to bottom (with only nominal competition from the private sector--which itself must imitate the public system to survive) should be sufficient warning that it can't be all good. In fact, it's nearly all bad--when truly understood.

In his 1968 book The American University, Jacques Barzun, then Provost of Columbia University, argues persuasively that higher education has become "preposterous"--offering virtually nothing of real value to college graduates except prestige--and he proposes that the solution is to "issue everybody a Ph.D. at birth and let them compete on their merits."

He makes a sound case for returning education to its self-evident roots: self-effort, self-instruction, self-education. Anyone who understands education realizes that no one can "educate" another. If we ever learn anything of value, it is because we taught ourselves from all the resources available to us. In today's "information age," in which learning resources are more plentiful than ever, this reality makes formal schooling particularly obsolete.

But such obsolescence is not a new phenomenon forced on us by computers. Throughout history, the truly motivated have needed no "teacher," other than the normal resources all around them. The story is told of a man who came to Socrates and asked for wisdom. Socrates took him to the ocean and held his head under water until the man nearly drowned. When the man fought his way to the surface, he demanded to know the reason for Socrates' behavior. Socrates said, "When you want learning as much as you wanted air, you won't need me to teach you."

The main product of formal education--of all kinds--is dependency, not freedom. The very process of institutionalizing learning makes learners servile, subordinate, groveling, as they learn to compete for opportunity and favor within the classroom, doing whatever they are told. The result is citizens who have lost much of their natural ability to learn, solve real (not just contrived or "academic") problems, take responsibility, take initiative. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, such systematic formal education is corrupting for all but the most ruggedly individualistic among us--and most of the latter drop out well before obtaining their "terminal degree."

If we argue that formal education is "necessary" in today's highly competitive, highly specialized world, we might consider whether we got that idea from real life experience or from indoctrination we received in our own education. Clearly, in today's sophisticated world of computers, readily accessible information about virtually anything, and affordable high-tech devices, gathering people into buildings and "instructing" them on the need to do whatever the assignment of the day is would seem increasingly obsolescent.

I have a slogan on my wall from the early 1970's that reads: "All education is self-education." That has always been the case, no matter the period in which we live. Ask Lincoln. Ask Einstein. Ask Bill Gates. Ask my kids--none of whom has ever set foot in a school. We have the Great Books in our home, eight computers, some sophisticated (but inexpensive) musical equipment, and lots of resources for learning, including an environment that encourages it. My children have all basically taught themselves--with encouragement (and modeling) from their parents. All have turned out to be highly competent in things that matter because we allowed them to learn what they wanted, within a framework of clear Christian values and lots of love. They're bypassing college--no need. They're in various stages of gaining a sound classical education, coupled with exceptional practical skills.

Who needs formal schooling?

Sydney J. Harris--a philosophical syndicated columnist in the 60's, 70's and 80's--once wrote that "schools exist for those who run them." At some point, that will dawn on any anyone independent-minded enough to learn to teach himself whatever he needs to know. Even a student in a classroom who is truly learning things of value is, in fact, educating himself. The most a teacher can do is to accelerate the learning of self-motivated students. He can't actually cause it. He is therefore not necessary to the learning process.

What we all need to do in education is to wean ourselves of institutionalized schooling--in which students are largely under the control of others--and take the advice of a major private university president who once said, "The prestige of degrees is giving way to the practical question, What can you do today, and how well will you be able to learn what you need to do tomorrow?"

We need to return to a truly free market system in America that allows all persons equal access to all opportunities and that outlaws discrimination against any job applicant on the basis of unevenly-useful "formal schooling." Such discrimination is no more justifiable than discrimination on the basis of color, creed, or gender. All that should matter in the marketplace is our actual--not imaginary--qualifications.

Until we reinstate such true freedom and opportunity in education and the workplace, we cannot sensibly claim that the American Dream exists at all.

Loopholes

Curiously, the fact that many of us are able to find ways around the monolithic, government-manipulated world of work in America--succeeding in carving out our own unique niche against seemingly insurmountable odds in business, education, or public service--does not of itself provide evidence that the American Dream still exists. The American Dream is not the ability to succeed against a wall of considerable oppression, or the ability to turn that oppression to our advantage in the highly competitive world. It is principles and legal mechanisms designed to facilitate our reasonable efforts to succeed by removing unfair impediments--in the interest of strengthening, not weakening, our nation. To the extent that we have to do highly unusual, or highly heroic, or highly creative things just to succeed, that is evidence that the Dream is virtually nonexistent. Were the Dream truly to exist, we--and everyone else--would have just the reverse experience: we would recognize all around us non-governmental, non-institutional, non-socialistic openly available opportunities to succeed--free for the taking, so long as we are willing to work hard in pursuing them and to be law-abiding and moral.

In the end, the American Dream is really nothing more than the premise that all that should be required for a person to succeed is willingness to work, in accordance with his own interests and in harmony with the will of God. To the extent that we are forced to conform with anybody else's preferences, demands, constraints, or values, including government's or institutions', in order to have opportunity, the Dream is dead.

Can we truthfully say that all of us are genuinely free to pursue our own individual quest for the American Dream of self-sufficiency, liberty, and happiness on our terms--not someone else's?

I think not. Genuinely free and open opportunity has become increasingly scarce in America. Our forebears would think that we are serfs on our own land, slaves to the government (in numerous ways not even touched on above), and chattel in the marketplace of ideas, goods, and services. The "exception" who has found a way to exploit or get around the system does not a dream for all others make.

© Stephen Stone

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Stephen Stone

Stephen Stone is the President and Editor of RenewAmerica — a conservative media site dedicated to restoring respect for America's founding principles.

This purpose includes not only respect for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as written, but for the Creator and His laws.

From the time he was a teenager, Stephen has considered himself a born-again Christian. Since then, he has devoted his life to pursuing life's questions and challenges through seeking to know the mind and will of God, and through seeking the ongoing sanctification of His Spirit.

As a result, Steve has become somewhat of a religious philosopher — one committed to defining the truth of any subject (as well as applying it) by the clear standards of God's Word.

His religious testimony can be found in "What does it mean to be converted to Jesus Christ," a position statement he wrote for RenewAmerica... (more)

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