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Education and Moral Purpose: The Dream Recovered

by William Proefriedt - 1985

The American Dream, that individuals, freed from the ancient chains of class and caste, can by their own efforts and ability achieve success, needs to be linked to a moral vision, which in turn should be incorporated into school policy and practice. (Source: ERIC)

Some say the American dream has ended, others that we should redouble our efforts to achieve it, and still others that it was, to begin with, the wrong dream. The dream, stated minimally, was that individuals, freed from the ancient chains of caste and class, could by their own efforts and ability achieve success. In our own century, education has been central to that dream. Those who say the dream has ended point to its dependence on the continued growth of the national and world economy, a growth they see as unlikely, and to a new rigidity of class lines within the society. Those who ask us to redouble our efforts in chasing the dream admit the difficulties involved, but urge the delivery of adequate educational services to the poor as the key remedy. Those who say we have had, all along, the wrong dream point out that we have unleashed an unparalleled selfishness resulting in a divided and unequal society, attended by the envy of the poor, the mean-spiritedness of the wealthy, and the anxiety of those in between.

The minimal statement of the dream, above, does not capture the full range of its expression in our culture. The celebrators and critics of the dream often address themselves to different versions of it. We need to distinguish among these versions to see where they are entangled and where separable. We need to see what was worthwhile and what was objectionable about the dream from the outset. We need, finally, to see where our dream has taken us, and what, if any, changes in direction would be desirable.


There are other ways of choosing people for tasks and rewarding them accordingly than a selection based on ability, but they do not strike us as morally appealing. It is part of the dream that people be chosen for jobs based on ability rather than on birth or for some other reason. We tend to perceive ability as largely the product of effort, thereby strengthening the moral claim involved in the selection and rewarding process. If you took the time to learn to make chairs well it seems fair for you to be chosen village chairmaker rather than I, who had no patience for learning chairmaking and who spent my afternoons in idle pursuits while you learned chairmaking. The judgments on each of us seem two sides of the same moral coin. We are each fairly rewarded for some interacting combination of effort and ability. The issue is complicated, however, by the fact that WC two do not live in isolation but are members of a larger village. At some point we have to ask whether it is good for the village to have chairs, that is, we need to know not only whether one person’s abilities are superior to another’s but also whether the ends effected by those abilities are worthwhile to the community.

For the moment, let us confine ourselves to the selection and rewarding of the village chairmaker. It seems clear that effort is at least part of the matter of generating many abilities, including that of chairmaker. But surely, too, effort is not the whole of the matter. There will be some failed chairmakers who worked as hard or harder than the chosen chairmaker at learning the trade but who simply were not able to do the job. This fact raises serious questions about the “selection on the basis of merit” aspect of the American dream. Lack of effort seems an adequate justification of failure and its penalties, but lack of ability, unrelated to degrees of effort, does not. If the American dream is a kind of religion of the people that explains and justifies our reality and, at the same time, directs us in how to move about within it, it will need to include a more adequate understanding of failure, and directions for responding to it, that will somehow make it more bearable. Warnings to exert more effort to survive and flourish within the society are helpful only to a point, after which they become destructive.

Rewarding ability still has much to recommend it. Knowledge that selection is based on performance can stimulate effort toward sharpening the performance. Further, the village is likely to get better chairmakers if they are selected on the basis of a better performance rather than by degree of relationship to the mayor or by lottery. What cannot be denied is that the emphasis on performance has exacted a very high price from Americans. For the front is piece of what is now seen as the quintessential American novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald chooses these lines from the poet Thomas Parke D’Invilliers:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her

If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,

Till she cry “Lover, gold hatted, high bouncing lover,

I must have you”.1

Moving sentiments, indeed, but not all of us seem cut out for such bouncing, with our eyes on the beautiful girl or the powerful employer or whoever else is making the judgment. One unwanted side effect of the performance-reward nexus noted by psychologists and sociologists is the production of anxiety. Some years ago, a study by Eliot Liebow described the fear of failure and the reactive behavior that flows from it among black streetcorner men in Washington, D.C. Richard, one of Liebow’s men, reports an incident at his girlfriend’s apartment in which her younger sister asks him to help with her homework. “She showed me some fractions and I knew right away I couldn’t do them. I was ashamed so I told her I had to go to the bathroom.“2 In Liebow’s view, the streetcorner man hedges when he enters into marriage and accepts responsibility for a child. He claims he has been coerced, so that if he fails, he will not be blamed for failing to accomplish what he was trying to do.3 His marriage is likely to fail because he cannot hold a job. And he holds a job in contempt as an internalization of the contempt in which it is held by his employer and by society in general. When he counts his pay as a dishwasher or janitor he understands the low esteem in which society holds him.4 We understand the stratagems of the streetcorner man, because his experience of anxiety is a reflection of all of our experiences.

A second undesirable side effect of the performance-reward nexus stems from our ability to simulate the quality of a performance and our willingness to accept some public rewards as a counterfeit verification of performance. Thus, it seems perfectly reasonable for an individual to perform a task and to seek public validation of the quality of his work. We have, however, twisted this concern for public validation into grotesque shape as the publicist precedes the performer in manipulating the judges to confer awards. Finally, the extent to which individuals mold themselves in order to become marketable items is a matter of serious concern. The masking and reshaping is not without price in the loss of identity, And, as with the matter of production of chairs, the question of the real worth of the marketable person to the village must be addressed.


Those who champion the American dream too infrequently face the question of individual and social ends. Both individuals and societies go on working toward ends, of course; the problem is that we fail to reflect on them. Speaking of the concept of equality of opportunity, the ideological embodiment of the American dream, John Schaar says: “No policy formula is better designed to fortify the dominant institutions, values and ends of the American social order than the formula of equality of opportunity, for it offers everyone fair and equal chance to find a place within that order.“5

Schaar’s criticism is helpful insofar as it calls to our attention the need for a reflection on individual and social ends in our society. The ideology of equality of opportunity is essentially a norm for a selection process. Schaar tells us that “before one subscribes to the equality of opportunity formula . . . he should be certain that the dominant values, institutions. . . are the ones he really wants.“6 Again, Schaar’s point makes sense insofar as it reminds us of the importance of the ends of the society, but it does not really call into question, it seems to me, the value of the selection process. His argument might be reformulated better to read: No method of selection, however fair, is enough to justify a society whose individual and common ends are flawed. To attack the selection process on the grounds that what people are being selected for is objectionable seems in error. Choosing the chairmaker on the basis of who makes the best chairs remains more than appealing. Further, it is hard to argue with rewarding people for extra effort. Problems arise when we (1) introduce a set of dramatically differential income and status rewards; (2) create anxiety, envy, and discontent in those who are not competent enough at chairmaking or some other higher-paid skill: (3) have no employment at all for the unskilled; or (4) appoint the chairmaker head of the local school board because he is a good chairmaker.

In an analysis of the American dream, the income-reward differential is a key issue. If the empirical claim that such differentials are needed to attract people to complex and necessary tasks is correct, there would seem to be a case for them. But some people are attracted to difficult and complex tasks without the promise or hope of a differential income. They may desire the respect of a small community or the satisfaction of a task well done; their motivations may be quite various. Certainly many people in our culture are at least partly attracted to their work, rather than some other, because of the differential income rewards involved. What is far from certain is the claim that the rather large income and status differences in our society are necessary to continue its efficient running.

The envy, discontent, and anxiety created in our performance-reward society might be considerably reduced were we to minimize income differentials and provide useful and rewarding work for all. That we admire chairmakers makes sense but that we allow our admiration for their chairmaking skill to cross over into appointing them to the school board is clearly an error. The appealing part of the American dream here seems to be the selection of the competent individual to handle a task needed by the community. Large income differentials following on certain selections seem not crucial to the dream, and, in fact, create undesirable side effects.


There is an argument that says the vaunted connection between performance and reward does not really exist in our society, that it is simply a rationalization offered by those with power and position to justify themselves. This is an argument not against equality of opportunity but against those who use it as a cover for whatever way they attained their position. Those who cover up recognize the intuitive strength of the ideology of equality of opportunity and seek to use it in their own interest; they run the risk of being unmasked by someone using the criteria of the very ideology they employ in their own defense. Some, however, are in fact extraordinarily competent at tasks the society values highly. They accept too easily, however, the notion that their competencies somehow entitle them to access to housing, entertainment, ad life-styles quite different from those of their fellow citizens and they see this access as the fulfillment of the American dream.


The stories of various individuals’ fulfilling their version of the American dream never end. A black woman Ph.D. related to me the story of her father, a native of Haiti, who had worked the boats plying their trade between the Caribbean and the east coast port cities of the United States. Jumping ship and seeking work inland, he found his way to the coal mines of Kentucky and became active as a union organizer. Her own childhood memories included baking pies with her mother and selling them at the Kentucky Derby. After her father’s death, she left her mother’s house to seek domestic work in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and was encouraged by her employers, graduate students, to attend the university. Her own daughter has recently graduated from Harvard cum laude at a ceremony attended, in a wheelchair, by the grandmother, the coalminer’s wife. It is a beautiful story illustrating the American dream: All shall be allowed to improve themselves as much as ability permits. Of this sort of thing, however, John Schaar says: “It breaks up solidaristic opposition to existing conditions of inequality by holding out to the ablest and most ambitious members of the disadvantaged groups the enticing prospect of rising from their lowly state into a more prosperous condition.“7

Again, Schaar’s point surely has some legitimacy. It is less likely that individuals who move up the educational ladder will identify strongly with those they have left behind. Many autobiographies attest to the difficulties, tensions, and embarrassments attendant on efforts by those who have moved up in society to return to their roots. Some of those remaining in the group surely direct their efforts toward getting out of it. Is the dream then inimical to solidarity? One can say at least this: that if the dream were not firmly tied to vastly unequal rewards, but were focused instead on individual fulfillment and social function, it would be much less at odds with the possibility of solidarity.

While the American dream of equality of opportunity focuses essentially on the process through which ends are attained, the objective realities of our society, our advertising, and our popular media generally point to opportunity as opportunity for a career rewarded by relatively high income, status, and sometimes power. Our novelists, poets, philosophers, and social scientists have not been remiss in criticizing this “career” aspect of the American dream, but they have hardly held sway in the public consciousness.8 We nerd, to paraphrase William James, a moral equivalent of career. The dream’s call for individual effort remains appealing: its insistence on selection based on merit remains convincing; what is needed, however, is a renewed look at where we are going as persons and as communities.


At least in our own century the school has been seen as central al to the American dream. Many view the school as society’s most effective vehicle for equality of opportunity, but some have claimed that the school has acted inconsistently with the main tenets of the American dream, that it, in fact, reflects the inequalities of our society in its treatment of students and adds to the inequality by tracking individuals into quite different future careers.

The most obvious form of inequality, and the one for which redress seems within reach, is that caused by differences in per pupil expenditures from school district to school district and from state to state. We finance our schools primarily through local property taxes and state revenues with a lesser amount added by the federal government. Since some states and some school districts have significantly more taxable wealth than others, they can, with less effort, spend more money per student than can poorer districts. The difference in expenditure is reflected in differences in availability of laboratories and libraries, class size, employment of competent teachers, availability of guidance and health services, and in other ways. Various states have made efforts to lessen the difference between school districts through formulas that provide more state funds to poorer districts. Vast differences still remain and court orders to legislatures to create genuine equality of opportunity. that is, to fulfill the American dream, are resisted by legislators concerned about their constituents in wealthy school districts. Despite its clear violation of the American commitment to equality of opportunity, the practice of paying more for one child’s education than for another is continued by local and state governments throughout the country.

The second form of inequality is closely related to the first. Some children are born into families much better off financially than others. These families tend to live in the wealthier, school districts; when they live in decaying cities, they send their children to private schools, or to special public schools for, the gifted and talented. The unequal structure of the society expresses itself in a variety of ways resulting in the fact that family income predicts school and career success. The recognition of this fact is not an argument against making every effort to improve schools servicing the poor; it is an argument for the need to equalize conditions so that the children of the poor will not be further handicapped. The current denial that poverty has a significant influence on the educational experience of poor children, rooted at times in the understandable pride of poor people themselves and at other times in the equally understandable pride of school professionals in their work, is finally counterproductive. The geographical distribution of poor children makes it likely, but hardly certain, that they will go to school with other poor children. Even where a comprehensive high school shows an economic mix, homogeneous grouping and curricular patterning are likely to replicate class differences. And peer influence multiplies the effect of poverty on the young people. Unfortunately, these inequalities are even less likely to be corrected than the differences in per pupil expenditures, differences clearly at odds with the mainstream notion of equality of opportunity.

Serious arguments are raised, however, against efforts to correct inequalities in educational opportunities created by the conditions of poverty. Some point up the practical problem. While the steps one might take to desegregate a school or to provide an equal per pupil expenditure are obvious enough, it is not at all clear how one would go about creating equality of conditions. Others point out that the effort to create equality of conditions would abrogate individual freedom and destroy the connection between effort and reward so central to the American dream. We would be signaling to individuals that it is no longer necessary to strive for economic rewards, since we would create a rough equality of conditions for their children anyway. Finally, talk about creating equality of conditions for school children calls into question a cherished corollary of the American dream: the belief that the most successful performers are those who had first to overcome the most adverse conditions.

As I have argued above, the most convincing part of the American dream is that which points to the need to allow those who have the ability to perform the task, and the least appealing, the least intuitively plausible, is the claim that such competencies should lead to significant income differences and hence to larger differences in the quality of the life experienced by different persons. Even if one were persuaded, perhaps by the appeal to the moral significance of individual effort, that those competent at certain marketable skills should be rewarded so differently from others, it is hard to make the case that parental competence should somehow justify the difference in life chances afforded to children. But, as we have seen, because of the nature of school finance, and because the schools largely reflect the class structure of society, the life chances of children as embodied in their educational opportunity are indeed strongly affected by parental income. When we visit the sins of the parents on the children, we often doubly err. We err first in assuming that the parents’ income is necessarily strongly related to effort or lack of it on their part, and we err again in accepting the notion that the parents’ inadequacies, if they exist, should be visited on the children. An analysis of the implications of our commitment to equality of opportunity thus leads us to assert that if we wish to continue it for all children, then we need to equalize educational financing, a relatively simple task, and then—and this is certainly more complex-move toward a rough equality of condition for all.


Schools not only reflect, through financing, geography, tracking, and curricular structures, the inequalities of the larger society: they further contribute to those inequalities. Schools certify some and not others for high-paying professional work. Tracking and curricular differentiation set students off on different paths predicting different career earnings. Some schools teach skills and patterns of behavior that command substantial remuneration. Entrance to select colleges ensures meeting with students and alumni who will be helpful with future careers. Graduation from these colleges ensures consideration by desired employers.

Efforts to create more equalitarian schools not only will not suffice but are largely wrongheaded. The educator is caught in the contradictions of an unequal society. Allowing manifestly incapable students into demanding courses or programs, grading students unrealistically, holding back students capable of doing advanced work—these are all pedagogically questionable practices that educators engage in out of sincere equalitarian instincts. Faced with decisions about tracking, curricular differentiation, or assignments to specialized schools, educators with democratic commitments evince understandable ambiguities. They do not wish to contribute further to the harsh inequalities of the society by their pedagogical decisions. The school then pays a high price for the flawed economic order. The inequalities of the society that affect student performance, and the same inequalities as they constitute a structure toward which the school moves its students, sweep away the possibility of educational autonomy. The school is overwhelmed.

Even if we were to provide roughly equal economic conditions for children, there would remain sufficient differences in intelligence and interest to warrant a variety of individualizing, curricular differentiating, and tracking practices. There would still be students with different interests, some in building and fixing, others in international trade, and still others, though far fewer, in Plato. And within these differing interests, there would surely be significant differences in ability. Knowing that such interests and abilities were not the product of an unjust social order, and, more importantly, knowing that curricular and student placement decisions would not affect the future income of students, schoolpeople would be able to act in a more educationally autonomous fashion. They would not be overwhelmed.

Given the inequalities of our present society, educational decision making remains mired in contradiction. We do not wish to fail students if by so doing we qualify them for a life of poverty or death on the battlefield. We wish to pass and fail students for specifically educational reasons only. But we cannot pretend that our society does not have the contours it does, in fact, have. “Making it” has usurped the American dream of self-fulfillment and the schools stagger under this burden.9


The American dream has usually been located in the future and in the wider world out there, and yet at the same time we have seen the importance of the small town, of the local community, of one’s childhood, one’s past, to the fulfillment of the dream. The schools, too, express this ambiguity. They are asked to play two often conflicting functions: to transmit the values of the immediate society, the small town, the local or ethnic group, to the children. and, at the same time, to introduce them to a set of skills and values that will enable them to gain entrance to a wider world, to make their way into the future, to fulfill the dream.

The farm boy going to town, the immigrant going through the Americanization process—these constitute the American story. Of the small town, Bronfenbrenner says: “Everybody in the neighborhood minded your business. . . . People on the street would tell you to button your jacket, and ask why you were not in church last Sunday. Sometimes you liked it and sometimes you didn’t, but at least people cared.“10 The small town and the minority ethnic community turn out to be both constrictive and supporting. One flees them for a wider world that is possible only outside of them; yet most carry the values of their childhood into the wider world as a judgment on that world. And we turn, in spirit if not in fact, to our roots for sustenance. Hamlin Garland goes back to his Main-Traveled Roads and finds the farms of the middle border at once bleak and solid,11 and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, tired of trying to look like Ronald Coleman and getting picked clean in the marketplace, enjoys a yam as he accepts his past and a sense of his own identity. The yam is sweet but frost-bitten.12 No author, however, has explored the American dialectic of the home place and the wider world at greater length and with more insight than Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe lived Dewey’s insight that we lack a clear hierarchy of values and therefore must settle for, and sometimes even celebrate, metaphors of growth and movement. As Wolfe saw it, “This is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. . . . George Webber was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.“13

The school is expected, and sometimes even by the same people, to teach the boy to live in the town, to stay off the railroad tracks, and at the same time, to put him on the train, to point him in the direction of the city. For Wolfe, the hometown is at once a source of innocence and salvation, and a place from which, to escape its meanness and parochialism, one sets out early. And the train is, at once, a “pain of going” and “triumphant promise.”14 The passage to the city is passage toward an unexpected brighter tomorrow; but, for Wolfe, as for so many others, the city disappoints. It turns out to be a place of shallowness and suffering. The school stands between these two ambiguous points on the American cultural landscape, the small community as both supportive and constrictive, and the city, the future, as both promise and peril.

Wolfe, it seems to me, in his own project, grasped a way out of this dilemma to which those who care deeply about the schools might attend. Like most of us, he found that you can’t go home again. The phrase, for him, carried a heavy burden. It meant, among other things, that you cannot go back to family and childhood, to ethnic roots—in his case, German: to idyllic country places, to lost fathers or to fixed systems of belief. Wolfe, the explorer of time and memory, plunged into the future, seeking, through his writing, “Fame.” He accepted the life of work that went with the end he sought, and he did have some sense of what constituted quality in his field. Achieving the end he sought, he was, of course, disappointed with the experience. For him fame turned out to be Medusa. As it was, and unlike Fitzgerald, he fled the wealthy lionizers soon after he published his first book, took up residence in a basement apartment in South Brooklyn, and continued his writing. In one of his nightly walks over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan during the Depression, Wolfe descended into a public latrine in front of City Hall. He spoke movingly of the homeless men he found there looking for warmth and rest. “They drifted across the land and gathered in the big cities when winter came, hungry, defeated, empty, hopeless, restless, driven by they knew not what, always on the move, looking everywhere for work, for the bare crumbs to support their miserable lives and finding neither work nor crumbs.“15

Like so many others before and since his time, Wolfe was struck by the contrasts of wealth and poverty in Manhattan. He describes George Webber emerging from “this hole of filth and suffering” and viewing

the giant hackles of Manhattan shining coldly in the cruel brightness of the winter night. The Woolworth Building was not fifty yards away, and a little further down were the silvery spires and needles of Wall Street, great fortresses of stone and steel that housed enormous banks, . . . a felt blocks away from this abyss of human . . . misery blazed the pinnacle of power where a large portion of the entire world’s wealth was locked in mighty vaults.16

Rejecting both the chase of fame and what he came to see as his self-absorbed effort to, like a “pot-bound plant,”17 feed on his own roots, Wolfe, perceiving the evil in his own country and in Nazi Germany, described in his naive yet moving way his turning from his own petty interests toward “an intense and passionate concern for the interests and designs of my fellow men and of all humanity.”18 Like Whitman, Wolfe, self-consciously American. retained his faith in the future and defined the enemy as greed. “I believe we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found.”19 Wolfe saw the enemy posing as our best selves, claiming that the pursuit of money and power was the meaning of the American dream. He called this claim a lie. Uncomfortable with the easy optimism of American life, Wolfe learned to accept the ultimate tragedy of individual lives, but believed, like Sisyphus, in the need to bend ourselves to the daily task of creating a better world.

The schools wrestle with the same issues Wolfe did. In many small towns, there is a continuity between the transmission of local values and the entrance into a wider society. In urban ethnic communities there is likely to be a more abrasive rubbing up against the wider culture. But moving into the larger society, at which task the school is often a partner, is what we call pursuing the American dream. The dream takes a variety of forms, and, as Wolfe and others saw, it can turn into a nightmare, still claiming to be the dream. Since we are interested in getting on a train, although we are not sure where we are going, since we are interested in growth without always defining what we are growing into, since we are notoriously unreflective about our values, we run the risk, as individuals and as institutions, of merely picking up whatever values are in the air without giving due consideration to their merit. Dewey’s emphasis on growth as an end and his refusal to commit himself to any given value hierarchy was accompanied by a sustained willingness to reflect on human experience and to build up a set of constantly renewable values out of that reflective experience.20 The schools, too often, seem not to engage in this sort of reflection and accept in an unquestioning way the best and the worst of the American dream.21 Wolfe’s nightmare of American greed is incorporated into school purposes. The school picks up the subverted and banalized dream, propped up by the free-market theologians and the new apostles of selfishness. It then becomes, in its practice and ideology, the place where the career is begun, where one gets ahead; it is a place that functions, at its best, for individual aggrandizement. At the same time, the school, in encouraging individual careers, is viewed as contributing to the strength of the nation, conceived in terms of international military and commercial power. Reciprocally, many choose careers that are tightly linked with our international, commercial, and military expansion and inevitably become apologists for it. The success ethic, on an individual and on a national level, functions as a substitute for moral purpose in the schools. Critical reflection on the realities of the society rarely occurs and the schools themselves remain a mirror of the social contrasts Wolfe expressed in his description of the public latrine and the silvery spires of Wall Street. Attracted by no larger vision, the schools are, instead. overwhelmed by the worst aspects of the dream embodied in the wider culture of which they are a part. We are blocked from complementing the individual dream of self-fulfillment with a common vision of a more just society by our belief that we have arranged society in such a way politically and economically that the pursuit of self-interest will, in the long run, establish the public good, and that we have no need, therefore, to attempt to discern that public good within the changing contexts of our world, and to incorporate our discernment into our school curriculum.

The romantic educational reformers of the sixties and seventies were accused of seeking salvation in the young. But the charge is at least equally applicable to the efforts of the new reformers. Like Miller’s Willie Loman, they demand that the young share their fears and illusions. They broadcast a rhetoric of self-seeking careerism at home, and military and commercial power abroad. But as Thomas Wolfe, and other Americans speaking with prophetic voices, have urged, this is not the dream, but the nightmare, not a friend and brother, but the enemy, greed, cloaked in the guise of our own better selves. We need, with Wolfe, to link our dream to a moral vision, and to incorporate that vision into school policy and practice.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 3, 1985, p. 399-410
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 907, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:49:30 AM

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