Professor Kurt The American Dream based upon a system of meritocracy, is an interesting aspect of the American culture. It is based on the premise that with hard work and patience, anything is possible. Financial security, social status and a stable lifestyle await those who put in the time and effort. While it is a comforting thought to hold onto while putting in forty plus hours at week at your Job, its reality is hard to prove. The American Dream relies on so many factors, that it seems as if only certain people will actually be able to achieve it, while others continually struggle.
In this paper, I will examine the roots of the American Dream in the Protestant Work Ethic and display the inequalities present in society that make the American Dream, simply a dream. The American Dream isn't necessarily an American invention. Meaning, it origins stem from a different time and culture. Martin Luther, a 16th Century German monk, sparked a religious revolution, which encouraged its followers to break free from the Catholic Church. Protestantism, as this movement came to be called, encouraged an individualistic attitude towards ones faith as well as strict asceticism in one's life.
People were told to believe that they were the one in charge of their interpretation of the bible and not some hierarchy of religious officials. They also were told to believe that faith and a simple life, filled with hard work, would guarantee them a place in heaven. Hence the Protestant Work Ethic came to be known and subsequently give rise to the American Dream. Weber saw the spirit of capitalism to be a consequence of the Protestant Work Ethic, specifically that of the Calvinist sect of Protestants.
The Calvinist were able to influence people to take up work in a secular world and accumulate wealth for further investment. This was very different from the original Protestant viewpoint. Calvinist believed in predetermination in which people were destined to succeed and live in wealth, while others would continually struggle. Those who were successful, were to be saved and those who were not, were to be damned. So how does this all tie into the American Dream? More importantly, how does meritocracy fit into this? Well, Weber notes that in some Protestant societies, such as
Calvinist, there was the notion of a calling. He says, "The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order". (Weber 103). It was this idea of a calling that made people dedicated to their craft and therefore dedicated to the pursuit of wealth. Subsequently wealth can be seen as a determinant of how dedicated you are to your craft.
Those who are more dedicated put in more time and effort and therefore, deserve more of a reward. This is the notion of meritocracy. Meritocracy basically says that you get what you put in. Those who take the time to hone their craft will make more money and be more successful. While the notion of meritocracy is one that embraces the idea of self worth & perseverance, it fails to take into account the societal factors that deny people access to their piece of the American dream. The American Dream says that every person can "pick themselves up by the bootstraps" and make something of themselves.
Yet it does not account for the fact that some people weren't given bootstraps in the first place or that there are societal structures at work that hold their bootstraps down. If the American Dream was simply reliant on being made of the right character traits and having the right work ethic, then I would not be writing this paper. However, the ability to achieve the American dream relies on other factors such as one's gender, race, and socioeconomic status. All of these factors affect the opportunities that one has including, going to a quality school and getting a good Job.
In their piece, "The American Dream, Origins and Prospects", Menace and Miller point out that education is one of the main factors in who achieves the American Dream, They write, "Schools reward children of the privileged by enhancing and certifying their social and cultural capital with valuable diplomas and degrees that provide access to occupational and economic opportunity. On the other hand, schools punish children of low socioeconomic status for their lack of such capital, consigning them to teachers, curricula, tracks, and the self-fulfilling prophecies of low expectations that these produce. " (Menace & Miller 15).
The life chances, as Weber calls it, for someone to actually do well diminishes significantly when placed in a school that cannot provide them with the necessary tools for success. I believe that if all schools were given equal attention and funding, then the amount of opportunities for children of lower socioeconomic status increases greatly. Subsequently, a better chance for success arises. Another reason I think that the American Dream is difficult to achieve is due to the increasingly widening wealth gap in our country. Part of the American Dream was the life that each generation could do better than the next.
People believed that they could make more money than their parent's did. However in today's society, with the widening wealth gap, that seems impossible. In 2007, the bottom 90% averaged about $31,244 while the top %1 made about $1. 7 million dollars. (Ease). In 2005, the top 1% saw almost a 14% increase in the annual income and the received their highest share of national income since 1928 Nonstop). The rich are seeing their income levels reach astronomically high levels, while the bottom 90% see theirs move at minimal increments. I find it hard to believe that the American Dream can exist with such a wide gap between the rich and the poor.
It's hard to go from rags to riches when the richest Americans are getting so much richer. In conclusion, the American Dream is a concept that I have a hard time believing in. This notion that people can build their way up into higher standards of life and social status, is my eyes, nothing more than a ploy to exploit people for their labor. Societal structures have made it so that only certain people can achieve in this country. If you are of the right race, come from the eight socioeconomic standing or are born into an already wealthy family, then success is almost guaranteed to you.
If you are not one of those people, I think you have a chance to succeed, but it's not as simple as the Dream proposes. Rather than redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom, I think what is needed is broader access to education, better essential nutrition, and more stable early childhood development experiences. I also believe that people must change their social views about race, and gender in this country. Until that is achieved, I think it is safe to insider the American Dream nonexistent.