- For Teachers
The idea of America Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, political speeches, art, and music. American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Philip Roth have also tried to capture the idea of what it means to be American and, most importantly, the American Dream by using seemly ordinary characters who are trust into extraordinary situations. This unit will seek to explore the idea of the dream as it is represented through poems, drama, songs, articles and the novel. First, we have to ask our selves what the American Dream means. We also have to ask why it is even important.
In answering the first question, we have to remember that the American Dream goes beyond attaining financial and material wealth. While these two goals are important, it is also important for students to think of the American Dream in its totality: personal liberty, freedom of religion, the opportunity of upward mobility, and the freedom to pursue the path to personal growth and fulfillment. The latter is forever enshrined in the Declaration of Independence which, among other things, recognizes a man’s right to “pursue happiness.” As we can see the American Dream goes as far back as the beginning of our nationhood and is central to our identity as Americans. It is particularly appropriate to use this theme now as the idea of the dream has come under renewed fire in the past few years. Starting with the mortgage crisis that began in 2008 and the ensuing financial recession, we have, as a nation, been forced to examine the sustainability of the dream or even to question if the dream is only accessible for a select few (the proverbial one percent). Even worse, the national dialogue surrounding the dream speculates whether it is attainable for the present youth or future generations. As young people poised to enter the workforce or college, this unit is appropriate for students to think about their personal goals and how those goals have been shaped, in part, by a national ideal.
In addition to the timeliness of this theme, I propose this theme to mirror the concerns and aspirations of students who are both native born or naturalized residents. More and more of our students will come from first generation immigrant families. Some of our students will come from homes where they are the first to become American citizens. The promise of a better life is what brought me and millions more to these shores. For these students, the American Dream is not some abstract dream—it is something they understand intimately. While their parents may have moved to have a better quality of life, first generation (even second generation students) have to decide for themselves what this “quality of life” should look like. This also holds true for students I describe as “firsts”: the first in their family to complete high school, the first to attend college, the first to become citizens.
In order to give students some background on how the recent economic crisis has changed our idea of the American Dream, I have chosen Louis Uchitelle’s piece on the hardships facing the American middle class. However, in order to track the literary evolution of the American Dream over time, I have selected Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and “Empire State of Mind” by Jay Z. The latter artist has at several times asserted that he is the embodiment of the American Dream. By examining his and other song lyrics, I want students to consider if his level of success is attainable for most. If it is, then how does one get there? The historical perspective provided by Vanity Fair contributor David Kamp is unique because it also includes a pictorial depiction of the dream as seen by Kodak ad campaigns from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The aim of this unit is not to persuade or dissuade students for or against the American Dream nor is it meant to be a comprehensive history lesson. The aim, rather, is to give students a platform for examining how writers have used this theme to tell stories about our collective dreams.