Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Graduate School and the American Dream

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Graduate School and the American Dream

     With Election Night finally here, having exercised my right to vote and now waiting to see how Americans envision the future of this nation, I've been thinking a lot about the American Dream. I've been thinking all day about what that idea really means, or has come to mean, over the years. And I've especially been wondering how graduate school, and the choice to attend graduate school, fits in with those ideas and connotations.
     Well, first of all, what is the American Dream? What are the most important tenets of it? Wealth? Career success? Home ownership? Rising above obstacles to achieve all these things? Being an "important" or "famous" member of society -- being celebrated, achieving celebrity?  Being true to yourself, and finding a way to express that self while contributing to the community and society?
      What about for people who choose to pursue graduate studies in the arts and sciences? Do scholarly and intellectual achievements and pursuits carry any cultural significance in the realization of the American dream? How about artistic achievements? Do they only resonate with the cultural idea of the American Dream if these pursuits bring success and notoriety to the scholar? Or do they carry some value inherently in this context?
     Keeping all this in mind, how does the pursuit of happiness, and the freedom of expression, factor into our concept of the ideal American experience?
     When thinking about the relationship between the graduate experience and the pursuit of the American Dream, one important factor to consider is the way graduate school shapes a student's world view through a cultivation of critical conversation, thinking, and creation. When I think about the ways I've grown as a person and a thinker while in graduate school, I feel grateful for the riches my education has bestowed upon me, despite what the numbers in my bank account say.
     But is there another side to this story? Is graduate school itself an opportunity that is not available to every American equally? I'm not saying here that everyone would want to go to graduate school, but are there people excluded from this opportunity because of economic disparities? Bruce Springsteen, whose last three releases were titled, respectively, Working on a Dream, The Promise, and then Wrecking Ball, says he sings about the "distance between the American dream and the American reality." This disparity, I think, is important to acknowledge when identifying, describing, and defining the American Dream. What goes along with this notion of "distance" is the accessibility of the "dream":  who has access to the opportunities that epitomize this dream? Certainly not every American, in reality, although the whole point of the dream is that everyone does.  
     Springsteen imagines the promised land, and the land of hopes and dreams, and tries to find ways to heal the broken hearts left from those runaway American dreams and unfulfilled promises. His first single from Wrecking Ball asks if we are living up to the promise that "We Take Care of Our Own." These promises, in fact, are what haunts the American Dream. But what does the American Dream promise us -- opportunity for wealth, or something more?  In a recent interview, professor and graduate director in the English Department Dr. Edward Cahill discusses the origin of the American Dream. Dr. Cahill's thoughts remind us that the upward mobility promised in the narrative of the American Dream was not merely an end in itself but a means to an end --  in which prosperity could enable a person to commit to public service, to help others and to create a better society. Today, it seems that affluence itself is the goal, rather than achieving affluence in order to commit to the society at large.
    As a graduate student, I see the impact that my commitment to pursuing my higher education has had on my life -- financially, emotionally, and intellectually, among many other ways. And I must weigh them all when considering the way graduate life has fit into my own personal vision of the American Dream. What are your thoughts on this topic? I'd love to hear from you!
   As we wait, I'm...electorally yours, Liza

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