The American Dream is a difficult concept to quantify. Everyone wants to have it, but what exactly is it? A two-car garage in the suburbs and one and a half kids? An education? A pair of expensive Nikes and a Bentley? In the past, the American Dream has represented different things, but today it has become such a selfish concept, taking things away from those who pursue it.
The concept of an American Dream has been with this country since its inception, offering to everyone a fair shake at success. While Rockefeller and Carnegie represent extreme examples of the manifestation of the American Dream, past generations have viewed the American Dream as something much more humble, exemplified by the golden age “Leave It To Beaver”-style family. Whether that type of life is anything to aspire to is up for debate, but that type of imagery is what many people think of when they envision the American Dream.
These types of idyllic nuclear families are no longer in vogue with the media, or with people. Many social movements have shattered the role-based cookie cutter family that once represented the American Dream. For people growing up today, the American Dream is about having something more than the middle class life many of our parents and grandparents aspired to.
Today, the American Dream isn’t simply about having what we need. It’s about having what we want. Not just what we want, but excessive consumption. The popular examples of success in this society are those of extreme success. Rich attorneys, fashion designers, doctors, and politicians dominate the media. Shows from “MTV Cribs” to “Mad Men,” (winner of the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Drama) focusing on the glamorous lives of the rich, are watched by millions of people. They are the examples of success to which many aspire and they have become the representatives of the American dream.
The realization of the American Dream has become entirely about material success. Our college degree doesn’t enter the equation as anything more than a means for us to get a good (read: high paying) job. Many people (myself included) fill their shelves with shoes, closets with shirts, buy video game after video game. But this mentality causes people to sell themselves short.
If college is seen as just a means to an end, and students just want to get their degree and get out, crucial opportunities are missed. In “Beyond the American Dream,” Charles D. Hayes deftly touches on this issue, writing, “the external motivators at the heart of our educational system cause people to conclude that an education is something you can ‘finish,’ even though the knowledge necessary to maintain a democracy in a highly technological society escalates daily. That education is primarily a means to an economic end, and is more important than education for living itself, is a foolish assumption,” Hayes said FAMU and its professors offer a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. Keeping that in mind and being set on absorbing that information will not only result in a more profitable life, but a more fulfilling one, in which the measure of success is not entirely based on material possessions.
This quest to acquire “the next big thing” can be incredibly draining, but this mentality is encouraged by the current perception of the American Dream. People are more than the sum of their bank accounts, and people should be concerned about bettering themselves in ways besides simply buying more stuff. The American Dream no longer offers a good example of what success in America should be about, but it is up to this generation to re-evaluate their frame of mind and reclaim the American Dream as a positive and motivating force. As Mr. Hayes said, “When you take charge of your education, you take charge of your life, and you shape your own American Dream.”