The Definition of the American Dream

What is the definition of the American Dream? Is it the ability to provide a life for your children that is better than the one you had? Is it the opportunity to achieve a higher level of education or a higher paying job than your parents?

In a blog post for the Institute of Family Studies, Anna Sunderland recently reviewed The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, a book by Christopher Lasch published posthumously, where he argued that our current definition of the “American Dream” as upward mobility is quite different than the American Dream of the past.

He argued that society was then defined not “by the chance to rise in the social scale so much as the complete absence of a scale that clearly distinguished commoners from gentlemen.”

Opportunity, as many Americans understood it, was a matter more of intellectual than of material enrichment.”

At this point, equality was not always spoken of in terms of wealth, but also in “the distribution of intelligence and competence…Opportunity, as many Americans understood it, was a matter more of intellectual than of material enrichment.” He also wrote that, “Citizenship appeared to have given even the humbler members of society access to the knowledge and cultivation elsewhere reserved for the privileged classes.” 

Lasch recognized that this idea was not a reality for everyone, although the idea was still pervasive.

Sunderland recognized that increasing opportunities for “civic involvement” and access to quality education are difficult tasks, which may be why they are not always first mentioned when discussing the American Dream. The difficulty though, does not diminish the necessity. She also brings up another point, which Lasch does not mention: strong families. 

Enabling more Americans to form such families—as most surely hope to do—is yet more complicated than improving schools,” Sunderland writes, “but if we aspire to reviving the American dream as Lasch defines it, then it’s not an optional task.” 

To read more of Sunderland’s post on the American Dream, check out her post on the blog of the Institute of Family Studies.


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