The American Dream and Higher Education's Broader Purpose

In The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, humorist and novelist Mark Twain quips, “Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”1 Twain was masterful at using irony to both reflect populist sentiments and critique the politics of the day. At a time when Americans were searching for a national identity, Twain’s popularity soared as he used the language of the people to deliver satirical messages aimed at undermining social hierarchies steeped in artificiality, pretentiousness, and inflated sophistication.

Americans today seem to be engaged in a similar identity crisis, accompanied by a nostalgic quest to recapture the American Dream. Coined by writer James Truslow Adams in 1931, the original concept of the “American Dream” was grounded in an idealist vision “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”2 While the American Dream has taken a decidedly more materialistic turn in recent years, higher education has consistently been ideologically linked to its fulfillment, whether in its capacity to serve as a catalyst for economic success and social mobility, in its ability to convey the values upon which our society rests, or in its preservation of democratic vitality through an educated citizenry.

What, then, are we to make of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN poll conducted of “working-class whites,” defined as “white Americans without college degrees,” in which 51 percent said that their lives would be no different in response to the question, “Do you think your life would be better, worse, or no different if you had a four-year college degree?” Standing in stark contrast to “working-class blacks” and “working-class Hispanics,” for whom the perceived correlation was much stronger (with 73 percent of African Americans and 74 percent of Hispanics maintaining that a four-year college degree would make their lives better),3 many white working-class Americans remain skeptical with respect to whether a college degree will enable them to achieve the hallmark of the dream—doing better than one’s parents. This is the case despite research indicating that Americans with a four-year college degree out-earn their peers by 98 percent.4

Scholars of white working-class studies offer powerful insights into the mindset of those who reject higher education at the ostensible expense of their own best interest. Among these is Sherry Linkon from Georgetown University, who was a commentator the day before the presidential election on The Academic Minute, a public radio show I host. Linkon reminded listeners that the costs of deindustrialization have not only been straightforwardly economic, noting the sometimes hidden long-term benefits industrial work provided, such as allowing “workers to buy homes, send their children to college, develop work-based social networks, and enjoy stable family and community lives.” Comparing the toxic effects of deindustrialization to those of radioactive waste, she insists that “if we want to understand the half-life of deindustrialization, we should listen to the stories of those who still feel the loss of economic security but also of social networks and individual possibility.”5 Likewise Michelle Tokarczyk, a professor of white working-class studies at Goucher College, provides a lens for understanding the disillusionment with higher education as an essential component of the American Dream. For Tokarczyk, the cynicism can be traced back to the white working-class’s “economic anxieties and political resentments, but also their cultural fears, including their concerns about the costs of elusive upward mobility.”6

The articles in this issue of Liberal Education attempt to provide a blueprint for change in response and reaction to the stories of those who have been denied access or been thwarted by institutional structures that create barriers to success. They confront the challenge of how to demonstrate that colleges and universities are teaching students twenty-first-century skills and truly preparing them for work and life, offer resources for implementing high-impact practices, raise critical questions regarding the hidden costs of “preferred identities” on our campuses, tackle curricular reform while enhancing signature work, and discuss strategies for overcoming burnout through co-teaching. Most significantly, they do so in relation to the broader purpose of higher education.

That broader purpose of a college or university education extends beyond its market value. As philosopher Mark Kingwell points out, “When it comes to valuing education, no ratings system or outcomes table can actually penetrate the mystery of why learning is good.” For Kingwell, the best single candidate for capturing higher education’s true value

is the sense of irony employed by commentators like Twain. Kingwell says, “Irony of this kind is the opposite of ideology, that bastion of catastrophic fixed meanings. As such, it is a virtue of the democratic imagination, an invitation to think differently, opt out, depart from imposed narratives, be a happiness delinquent.” Like Twain, who was always quick to point out incongruities between words and actions, Kingwell concludes, “And that’s what education is for, finally. Ironically, you can pay for the opportunity but you can’t put a price on the outcome.”7 

Notes

1. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 33.

2. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1931), 404.

3. Liz Hamel, Elise Sugarman, and Mollyann Brodie, Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN Working-Class Whites Poll (Washington, DC: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2016), 12.

4. Ainsley O’Connell, “The American Dream Is Under Threat. Can Higher Education Save It?,” Fast Company, December 14, 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3066523/innovation-agents/the-american-dream-is-under-threat-can-higher-education-save-it.

5. David Hopper, “Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University – Working Class Voters,” The Academic Minute, November 7, 2016, https://academicminute.org/2016/11/sherry-linkon-georgetown-university-working-class-voters.

6. Michelle M. Tokarczyk, “Hidden Anxieties of the White Working Class,” Working-Class Perspectives (blog), December 19, 2016, https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/hidden-anxieties-of-the-white-working-class.

7. Mark Kingwell, “A University Education Is More Valuable Than Any ‘Outcome,’” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2013, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/education-is-the-serious-business-of-being-a-person/article14050671.

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