Explaining the American Dream

Growing up in the new raw post-war suburbs of Pittsburgh was pretty much an all-white experience, even if the hero of all heroes in Pittsburgh will always be Roberto Clemente, a black man from Puerto Rico whose English was limited. It didn’t matter. He was cool as hell, and a hell of a baseball player. Maybe he was the Miles Davis of baseball – he didn’t have to say much, he just had to play. Everyone loved the guy, and to be fair, the city itself was multicultural. Every culture in Central Europe was represented, even the Lithuanians, and there were lots of Italians too, but that was about it. The black folks lived in the Hill District. August Wilson wrote about those lives. The rest of us watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. In the early sixties, those high school years, the South was being ripped apart by all that civil rights stuff. Something big was happening, something important. It wasn’t happening in Pittsburgh. It was time to leave.

That’s what college is for. That’s where you go to learn about the wider world, so in September, 1965, it was off to learn about the world, to get a liberal arts education, at one of the best small liberal arts universities in Ohio, Denison University, an hour’s drive northeast of Columbus in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farms. That place was pretty white too, even if they did their best at diversity. Their best wasn’t good enough. At the time there were few blacks and even fewer Asians and no Hispanics, which is understandable. Why would they want to spend four years in that slow Grant Wood world? The school had to import the outside world, visiting scholars and guest lecturers, and then there was that weekend that The Supremes gave a concert on campus. The frat boys were amazed. Diana Ross was hot! That changed everything they thought about “those people” – but probably not in healthy way. There was also that odd Harry “Sweets” Edison, the legendary jazz trumpet guy, and he was wonderful, and he sneered at all the white kids who were blown away by his brilliance. He was laughing at us. He may have flipped us off, but that was many years ago and memory fails. He probably did. That was probably appropriate.

Things weren’t much different in graduate school, at Duke University, in the South. It was the South. Everyone knew the rules. The civil rights movement had only changed the law, not the social rules, and then it was teaching English at a prep school in Rochester, New York – a private school, for the city’s elite, or those that could afford it, in a city that was much like Pittsburgh, pretty much white – a double whammy. Rochester is also as upstate as upstate can be, about as far from New York City as a you can be without ending up in Eire or Cleveland. A taste of the outside world was a full day’s drive away, if you weren’t snowed in. Canada was on the other side of the lake.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1981 fixed all that. It wasn’t just all the folks speaking Spanish. That’s a cartoon view of Los Angeles. There’s a Japanese community, and culture, and you hear Mandarin and Cantonese too, and Thai and Tagalog and Vietnamese. Long Beach has Tongan gangs and Glendale has Armenian gangs – it’s not just the Bloods and Crips from Compton, now evolved into who knows what. Little Ethiopia is just down the street here, on the other side of all the Ukrainians. The outside world was here, or this was, finally, the big wide world. Los Angeles would provide that liberal arts education that the little college in the middle of Ohio never could. There were no books. You had to live it. You had no choice.

Systems work in aerospace only reinforces that. The best midrange and mainframe systems we were using were written by young Russian guys out of UCLA and such places. Half of what was coming out of Silicon Valley up north was the work of odd fellows from India, and the guy on your left might be Vietnamese, or Iranian – in the seventies all the professional people had left there, when the ayatollahs took over. The water-cooler conversations were interesting. We all saw the world differently and tried to figure that out. What’s important in one culture isn’t important in another. Some folks don’t think Jesus is the answer to everything. Who knew? It was a daily gradate seminar in cultural values and international relations.

We had a fine time, and then there was that waif of a Frenchwoman. We got along fine. The cultural gap wasn’t wide, but she asked about what puzzled her. Why leave teaching? Teachers are the most respected persons in any community, and in any culture, and they earn good money. Why leave? Isn’t it like that in America?

No, it isn’t. Why? The answer to that was that it just isn’t, because the real answer is long and tedious. The tedious answer was explored by Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) which explored our curious distrust of people who know more than we know, a culturally established distrust of experts and expertise. If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich? Maybe there was a time when being well-educated and insightful, and full of ideas, or at least able to discuss the ideas of others intelligently, or least know there were ideas floating around out there somewhere and they mattered, made you cool – or maybe that was France. But now, here, more than ever before, that makes you a fool. You’re inauthentic. You’ve lost touch with the real America. Obama, with his degrees and having taught constitutional law and all the rest, must be out of touch with the real America.

A lot of this is all mixed up with our attitudes about where we learn things, which for most of us is in school, from teachers, most of whom are women. Hofstadter is clear on that too. Historically, teaching in America, uniquely, has been a women’s profession. The few men who taught kids were suspect. They were effeminate losers. After all, those who can’t do, teach. That’s why teachers are paid next to nothing. They’re not doing. Hofstadter traces this thinking back through all the years, back to Colonial times. Real men don’t teach.

That was the long answer. The short answer is that Americans aren’t French. Sure, you should know lots of stuff, but whatever success you have, whatever you might achieve, will be because of your character, or because of Jesus, or because you were bold. High-school dropouts become millionaires, after all. The waif pointed out that most don’t. Well, yes, that’s true, but couldn’t that be because of their moral failings? She wasn’t buying it, but she needed to know that’s how Americans think. She was not impressed, but she was French.

Actually, Americans may not believe that, as everyone, with the exception of a good number of evangelicals, and perhaps every parent in South Carolina, wants their kid to get a good education. Everyone assumes that everyone having a good education is good for the nation. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof puts it this way – “A basic element of the American dream is equal access to education as the lubricant of social and economic mobility.”

Get a good education and you’ll get a good job. You’ll move up in the world. Character and boldness and Jesus are fine, but learn to read and write and do math, and think clearly, and be able to explain yourself coherently – first things first. Americans believe that too. At least they used to. Kristof looks at the annual survey of education from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and sees this:

We expect each generation to do better, but, currently, more young American men have less education (29 percent) than their parents than have more education (20 percent).

Among young Americans whose parents didn’t graduate from high school, only 5 percent make it through college themselves. In other rich countries, the figure is 23 percent.

The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the largest percentage of adults with a university education of any industrialized country – a position once held by the United States, although we’re plunging in that roster.

That’s pretty depressing, and there’s this:

As recently as 2000, the United States still ranked second in the share of the population with a college degree. Now we have dropped to fifth. Among 25-to-34-year-olds – a glimpse of how we will rank in the future – we rank 12th, while once-impoverished South Korea tops the list.

A new Pew survey finds that Americans consider the greatest threat to our country to be the growing gap between the rich and poor. Yet we have constructed an education system, dependent on local property taxes, that provides great schools for the rich kids in the suburbs who need the least help and broken, dangerous schools for inner-city children who desperately need a helping hand. Too often, America’s education system amplifies not opportunity but inequality.

This is not the land of opportunity. The American Dream is reserved for only a few, and Kristof adds this personal story:

My dad was a World War II refugee who fled Ukraine and Romania and eventually made his way to France. He spoke perfect French, and Paris would have been a natural place to settle. But he felt that France was stratified and would offer little opportunity to a penniless Eastern European refugee – or even to his children a generation later – so he set out for the United States. He didn’t speak English, but, on arrival in 1951, he bought a copy of the Sunday edition of The New York Times and began to teach himself – and then he worked his way through Reed College and the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a university professor.

He rode the American dream to success; so did his only child. But while he was right in 1951 to bet on opportunity in America rather than Europe, these days he would perhaps be wrong. Researchers find economic and educational mobility are now greater in Europe than in America.

Go to the land of opportunity, France. We’ve reversed roles. We just don’t do that egalitarian education thing any longer:

European countries excelled at first-rate education for the elites, but the United States led the way in mass education. By the mid-1800s, most American states provided a free elementary education to the great majority of white children. In contrast, as late as 1870, only 2 percent of British 14-year-olds were in school.

Until the 1970s, we were pre-eminent in mass education, and Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University argue powerfully that this was the secret to America’s economic rise. Then we blew it, and the latest OECD report underscores how the rest of the world is eclipsing us.

In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.

And we blame the teachers:

In some quarters, there’s a perception that American teachers are lazy. But the OECD report indicates that American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad. Yet American teachers earn 68 percent as much as the average American college-educated worker, while the OECD average is 88 percent.

Ah, that’s what the waif was talking about. Somewhere, not here, it’s possible to make a decent living as a teacher. She had a lot to learn about America. She’d drive out to Las Vegas now and then for a weekend there, to learn what she could. That’s as good a place as any, and Tom Sullivan adds this:

It’s not just the educational system that’s broken, or the financing. It’s the social contract that undergirds the whole culture. People wave around pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution as though it is holy writ, yet break faith with it after the first three words of the preamble. We the People? Sounds like socialism. In spite of the fact that support for public education predates ratification of the constitution and is written into statehood enabling acts including the 50th (Hawaii, 1959), and is reflected in state constitutions from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Yet, conservatives such as Rick Santorum preach that “the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic.” …

Because it’s “Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost,” you takers! Conservatives for conservatives! Undermining the public schools by cutting budgets and diverting public funds to private-school vouchers and charters isn’t an accident. It’s a strategy. Eliminate the American Dream and maybe “they” won’t want to come here and ruin it for Real Americans.

That’s a little over the top, but not by much:

Jody Hice, the Republican nominee to succeed GOP Rep. Paul Broun in Georgia’s 10th congressional district, said on his radio program in 2011 that American public schools remind him of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

“Obviously, if we have government – which is what the public school is – if we have government indoctrinating what students are learning, then we have a problem,” Hice said. “This took place in Germany, friends. I’m not trying to say we are necessarily headed in that direction, but it is undeniable that one of the first things Hitler did was to grab, so to speak, the minds of the youth.”

Hice, a Tea Party favorite whose local celebrity as a conservative radio host helped propel him to victory in the GOP primary, went on to say that the situation in contemporary America is “just as dangerous.”

Public schools are a menace? That makes public school teachers the brown shirts, and Richard Eskow covers the college situation:

Education for every American who wants to get ahead? Forget about it. Nowadays you have to be rich to get a college education; that is, unless you want to begin your career with a mountain of debt. Once you get out of college, you’ll quickly discover that the gap between spending and income is greatest for people under 25 years of age.

Education, as Forbes columnist Steve Odland put it in 2012, is “the great equalizer, the facilitator of the American dream.” But at that point college costs had risen 500 percent since 1985, while the overall consumer price index rose by 115 percent. As of 2013, tuition at a private university was projected to cost nearly $130,000 on average over four years, and that’s not counting food, lodging, books, or other expenses.

Public colleges and universities have long been viewed as the get-ahead option for all Americans, including the poorest among us. Not anymore. The University of California was once considered a national model for free, high-quality public education, but today tuition at UC Berkeley is $12,972 per year. (It was tuition-free until Ronald Reagan became governor.) Room and board is $14,414. The total cost of on-campus attendance at Berkeley, including books and other items, is estimated to be $32,168.

The California story has been repeated across the country, as state cutbacks in the wake of the financial crisis caused the cost of public higher education to soar by 15 percent in a two-year period. With a median national household income of $51,000, even public colleges are quickly becoming unaffordable.

Sure, there are still some scholarships and grants available. But even as college costs rise, the availability of those programs is falling, leaving middle-class and lower-income students further in debt as out-of-pocket costs rise.

Do you want your kid to get ahead? Move the family to France, or even better, Germany. Slate’s Rebecca Schuman explains:

Last week, Lower Saxony made itself the final state in Germany to do away with any public university tuition whatsoever. You read that right. As of now, all state-run universities in the Federal Republic – legendary institutions that put the Bildung in Bildungsroman, like the Universität Heidelberg, the Universität München, or the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – cost exactly nichts. (By the way, they weren’t exactly breaking the bank before, with semester fees of about EUR 500, or $630, which is often less than an American student spends on books – but even that amount was considered “unjust” by Hamburg senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt.)

Well, you might be thinking, isn’t that just wunderbar for the damn Germans, with their excellent supermarket commercials and their spectacular beach nudity and their pragmatically dressed Chancellor. Now with their free college they’re just showing off. Well, here’s the kicker: Germany didn’t just abolish tuition for Germans. The tuition ban goes for international students, too. You heard me right, parents of Amerika: You want a real higher-education bargain? Get your kids to learn German and then pack them off to the Vaterland.

Jody Hice down in Georgia was right. The German government wants to educate all its children, for free, and they want to educate our children too! They must be stopped.

He need not worry. Here’s some of the data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

States are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education, nationwide, in the current 2013 fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit.

Every state except for North Dakota and Wyoming is spending less per student on higher education than they did prior to the recession.

In many states the cuts over the last five years have been remarkably deep. Eleven states have cut funding by more than one-third per student, and two states – Arizona and New Hampshire – have cut their higher education spending per student in half.

And at the college level:

Public colleges and universities across the country have increased tuition to compensate for declining state funding. Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by $1,850, or 27 percent, since the 2007-08 school year, after adjusting for inflation. There has been great variation across the states. In two states – Arizona and California – published tuition at four-year schools is up more than 70 percent, while other states’ universities and many two-year colleges have held tuition increases closer to the rate of inflation. Major increases in federal student aid and tax credits, on average, have fallen well short of covering these increases. …

Tuition increases have made up only part of the revenue loss resulting from state funding cuts. Public colleges and universities also have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut down computer labs, and reduced library services, among other cuts. For example, Arizona’s university system cut more than 2,100 positions; merged, consolidated or eliminated 182 colleges, schools, programs and departments; and closed eight extension campuses (local campuses that facilitate distance learning).

And there are consequences:

The reduced college access and reduced graduation rates that research suggests are likely to result from budget cuts affect more than just the students, because college attainment has grown increasingly important to long-term economic outcomes for states and the nation.

Getting a college degree is increasingly a pre-requisite for professional success and for entry into the middle class or beyond. A young college graduate earns $12,000 a year more annually than someone who did not attend college, after adjusting for inflation, according to research from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

The benefits of academic attainment extend beyond those who receive a degree; research suggests that the whole community benefits when more residents have college degrees. Areas with highly educated residents tend to attract strong employers who pay their employees competitive wages. Those employees, in turn, buy goods and services from others in the community, broadly benefitting the area’s economy. Economist Enrico Moretti of the University of California at Berkeley finds that as a result, the wages of workers at all levels of education are higher in metropolitan areas with high concentrations of college-educated residents. This finding implies that – even though not all good jobs require a college degree – having a highly educated workforce can boost an area’s economic success.

And the economic importance of higher education will continue to grow into the future. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce projects that by 2018, 62 percent of all jobs will require at least some college education. That is up from 59 percent in 2007, 56 percent in 1992, and 28 percent in 1973.

The Georgetown center further projects that the nation’s education system will not be able to keep up with the rising demand for educated workers. By 2018 the county’s system of higher education will produce 3 million fewer college graduates than the labor market will demand.

And there’s the debt thing:

The increase in student debt in recent years also has important implications for the broader economy. While debt is a crucial tool for financing higher education, excessive debt can impose considerable costs on both students and society as a whole. Research finds that higher student debt levels are associated with lower rates of homeownership among young adults; can create stresses that reduce the probability of graduation, particularly for students from lower-income families; and reduce the likelihood that graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will go on to graduate school.

Graduate school is where majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics go to learn the details, as if the details matter. Oh well. The real graduate school, however, was at that water cooler in the building next to the one where they made those secret spy satellites, out here in Los Angeles. Interesting people from interesting places explained what they thought really mattered in a culture, what held things together, and the guy from Pittsburgh tried to explain the American Dream. That was harder than it should have been.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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