Name: Tianyi Ge
Instructor: Prof. Steinberg
Course: English Composition
Essay Number: 1
Essay Type: Final Draft
Date: September 17, 2013
In today’s society, many Americans believe in the myth that education empowers people and is
the only gateway to the American Dream. They deem that in order to succeed in life, people must attend elite schools, receive the best education, and rank at the top of their class. The importance of education, however, is excessively exaggerated, and in many cases bad education does not necessarily block one’s path to the American Dream. As James Adams states in his 1931 book The Epic of America, “[The]
American dream is the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” 《404》. From this quote, the fundamental idea of the American Dream actually correlates with the myth of individual opportunity that anyone has the chance to succeed in life through hard work. Indeed, people are given the opportunities to achieve success and be able to fulfill the American Dream regardless of their races and education, as long as they devote relentless efforts to their work. Protagonists in the novels of Horatio Alger perfectly exemplify the myth of individual opportunity, which is deeply rooted in the American Dream: people can rise from their humble backgrounds, grow to their fullest potential, and succeed in life with their perseverance and honesty. In “From Ragged Dick,” the main character, Dick, is a homeless young man who never attends school and earns his living “by devoting half the day to blacking boots” 《Alger 246》. Despite his poor background, Dick harbors an ambition for success, and finally achieves it through his hard work and courage. When he sees that a small boy falls off the ferry, Dick immediately “spring[s] to the rescue of the little boy” and saves the boy from the foaming water 《Alger 247》. Dick’s audacity is rewarded by the boy’s father, who Ge 2
turns out to be a wealthy industrialist, and offers Dick a well-paying clerical job in his business 《Alger 250》. With his hard work and cleverness, Dick soon rises up as a major figure to run the company, and earns a decent amount of fortune afterwards. Apparently, the myth of education and empowerment in this context does not work for Dick; rather, with honesty and diligence, Dick, a poor homeless orphan, transforms into a noble, successful man. Although being uneducated gives people an unavoidable disadvantage in many aspects of life, such as finding a job, it does not necessarily hinder them from success. Education serves to guide and prepare people through the unknown, and provides another opportunity to lead them to prosperity. However, moral quality and hard work close the deal when it comes to success, because morality and efforts show who you are and what you do in real life, which outweigh what you learn from textbooks. Although knowledge as a tool can lead people in a successful direction, it can never replace their explorations of real-life experiences. It is the relentless efforts we contribute to our work that give us the opportunity to succeed, and make our dreams come true.
Essentially, it is what we do rather than what we have that leads us to success. Furthermore, the myth of individual opportunity states that people have the chance to succeed in life, regardless of their ethnicities. Especially, people’s academic excellence depends on performance rather than ethnicity. In “Horatio Alger,” Harlon Dalton portrays an accomplished young black man who aims to attain a judicial clerkship 《260》. Due to the young man’s excellent academic performance, his professor writes him a recommendation letter and refers to him as “the best Black student to have ever taken his class” 《Dalton 261》. Despite the fact that the student is still judged by his African American ethnic background, his remarkable academic standing is unquestionably highlighted in the recommendation letter. The appreciation of the young man’s academic achievements shows that the young black’s excellence is more evaluated by his actual performance than by his ethnicity. From this story, the race factor does not prevent the young black man from competing for the job and making further progress in life. It is his own remarkable academic standing that gives him the opportunity to attain the clerk job. This example shows that people can have the chance to reach their goals and realize the American Dream, no matter what their ethnicities are. Ge 3
Nevertheless, someone may still support the myth that education is the only determinant factor of success, by presenting the research done by sociologist Jean Anyon. In “From Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Anyon describes how the education quality differs for the working class and the upper class in the 1970s. According to Anyon, teachers at the working-class schools, where typically low-income children studied, stressed rote, mechanical memorization of facts, but rarely explained the context or principle of the knowledge 《167》. On the other hand, educators at the elite executive schools, which wealthy kids attended, promoted creativity and analytical thinking among their students. For example, when teaching two-digit division, elite school teachers provided visual materials for students to conceptualize, and guided them to explore the answer themselves, instead of demanding them memorizing the steps of doing a specific two-digit math problem 《Anyon 175》. This comparison of the education quality between different schools, however, cannot support the argument that nowadays education, which is influenced by social class, determines success.
Again, the research was conducted in the 1970s, which was approximately 50 years ago. During this half century, America has witnessed the remarkable improvement of its public education system. The U.S. government has put billions of dollars in education reforms since the 1960s. According to the former U.S. Secretary of Education, William Bennett, expenditures spent on each student in public school increased by 212% from 1960 to 1995 《Bennett》. In addition, Bennett explained that these public schools included most of the working-class schools where typically poor children studied 《Bennett》. Therefore, nowadays working-class students generally have more academic resources and are better funded in learning compared to those students in the 1970s. Furthermore, educational technology has greatly facilitated better teaching quality. Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education showed that “in 2008, the average public school contained 189 instructional computers,” compared to nearly zero in the 1970s 《Snyder and Dillow》. Also, the public schools, to which these statistics were referring, included nearly all the working-class schools, which were typically attended by poor children 《Snyder and Dillow》. By logging on the computer and using the internet, working-class students are no longer limited to the
formal classroom learning, but have exposure to as many online academic resources as elite school Ge 4
students. Accordingly, educational technology, a symbol of the 21st century, narrows the gap of teaching quality in different schools. Thus, working-class children today have a better education than those in the 1970s. Second, people who support the myth of education and empowerment in the context ignore the fact that education is not limited in class. In fact, people are able to educate themselves, and this diligent self-teaching process can help them flourish in life.
The myth of individual opportunity tells us that as opposed to being the only gateway to the
American Dream, education provides people with an excellent opportunity to achieve success. It is
especially true for self-education, through which individuals experience a life-altering epiphany, drive themselves ferociously through hard work, and ultimately accomplish their goals of the American Dream.
The story of Malcolm X’s self-education to self-enhancement thoroughly epitomizes this aspect of the myth of individual opportunity. Malcolm X dropped out of school at the age of 17 and soon became a street hustler 《Burke》. Afterwards, Malcolm X was arrested in connection with drug dealing and was “sentenced to 10 years imprisonment” 《Burke》. It was during his time in prison that Malcolm X realized the importance of education. According to his essay “Learning to Read,” Malcolm X memorized the whole dictionary to enlarge his vocabulary, and explored the collections of books in the prison library to improve his writing 《190》. Immersing himself into the world of books, Malcolm X felt true happiness, and gradually his views on religion, human race, and nature dramatically changed. By influencing people with his newly formed ideas, he soon rose as a leader to the Nation of Islam, and contributed significantly to the equality of black people. The real-life story shared by Malcolm X demonstrates another important aspect of the myth of education and empowerment, which is intrinsically wrapped up with the myth of individual opportunity. Although the importance of education should not be exaggerated so greatly that education becomes the only path to the American Dream, it is nevertheless undeniable that a good
education enormously enhances individual competence and increases the chance of success. Through hard work and incessant efforts, people not only obtain truth and wisdom from books by self-learning, but also apply their knowledge and skills to realize their dreams and achieve success. In other words, education is Ge 5
not the only gateway to the American Dream, but provides an outstanding opportunity for individuals to accomplish their goals.
Undoubtedly, today education provides a major opportunity for American citizens to realize the American Dream. It is definitely true that being uneducated gives Americans a disadvantage, and makes it hard for them to attain high-paying jobs. However, the importance of education is usually exaggerated in the social context that education becomes the only path for all American people to achieve success. As a result, many Americans believe that a good education becomes the only opportunity for people to realize the American Dream. In fact, the myth of education and empowerment and the myth of individual opportunity can work at the same time to show that a good education is an excellent opportunity for individuals to succeed in life. But more importantly, it is hard work and relentless efforts that lead Americans to prosperity, success, and the American Dream.
Adams, James T. The Epic of America. 2nd ed. New York: Greenwood Press, 1931. Print.
Alger, Horatio. “From Ragged Dick.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle 246-250.
Anyon, Jean. “From Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle 167-175.
Bennett, William J. “20 Troubling Facts about American Education.” Catholic Education Resource
Center, 2008. Web. 19 August. 2013.
Burke, Barry. “Malcolm X on education.” Community Education, 2004. Web. 19 August. 2013.
Colombo, Gary, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle, eds. Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.
Dalton, Harlon L. “Horatio Alger.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle 260-261.
Snyder, Thomas, and Sally Dillow. “Digest of Education Statistics 2010.” U.S. Department of Education, April 2011. Web. 19 August. 2013.
X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read.” Colombo, Cullen, and Lisle 189-190.