The REAL American Dream

by Dr. Scott Andersen


What do you think of when you think of attaining the American Dream?

I feel like we may have lost sight of what it really means, at least to some degree. Let’s take a look at the origin of the this dream.

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In his book titled, The Epic of America, written in 1931 during the Great Depression, James Truslow Adams wrote, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstance of birth or position.”

It was in the book that the phrase “American Dream” was coined.

On a similar vein, American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote, “to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity …. the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him."

I have previously written about my affinity of the book The End of Average by Todd Rose. I actually was inspired to write this based upon his writings in this book. He wrote the following, “The original formation of the American Dream was not about become rich or famous; it was about having the opportunity to live your life to the fullest potential, and being appreciated for who you are as an INDIVIDUAL, not because of your type or rank. Though America was one of the first places where this was a possibility for many of its citizens, the dream is not limited to any one country or peoples; it is a universal dream that we all share.”

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According to Rose, Adams wrote the book in an environment during the Great Depression where there was “no regard for the individuals.”

I am actually getting to a point that relates to education and I am going to share one last quote from Rose’s book. It provides a terrific segue to my role and commitment as an educator. He wrote, “We live in a world that demands we be the same as everyone else, only better, and reduces the American Dream to narrow yearning to be relatively better that the people around us, rather than the best version of ourselves.”

This last quote exposes a major weakness of our mainstream educational system in our country: it was not designed for the individual student.

We are still founded on an antiquated educational system that was based upon Frederick Taylor’s industrial model. Both in business and in education, his model did not consider the individual to be an important component of success.

Today, in classrooms all over this country, we are still struggling as a result of an educational system that uses set curriculum, pacing, sequence, content and instructional methods that do not take into account the individual student.

Using an assembly line, where parts move synchronously down a belt and workers make some type of modification to that part as it makes its way, served industry well. However, that same approach, which is still used today in many school districts, where we deliver the exact same experience to children regardless of who they are, where they are, and what they can do, simply does not work. And we have decades of results that prove that over and over.

This model does not just fail our “lower performing” students. It actually fails any student if their learning is not matched to them individually. A gifted child loses on the “assembly line” as does the “low performing” child.

There is a saying that goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, when education comes to mind, I think, “If it is broke, we MUST fix it.”

There is a big movement afoot now pertaining to personalized learning. I work in a field that addresses a key solution that helps with personalizing learning: the use of online and blended learning that can be tailored and adapted to individual students. I love the work that I do and I know that work that I do, along with my many colleagues, is making a huge difference in the lives of many students and families.

Even so, the work that I do is only one part of the work that needs to be done. We must all do our part. We need to rebuild from the ground up the “traditional” delivery of content, its timing, the assessment, how we use space, technology, and our community, to find as many unique pathways as possible that will meet the individual needs of our students.

To the fullest extent possible, we need to design DYNAMIC components instead of fixed opportunities. I also think K-12 education needs to seriously consider how we “chunk” content. I think we can create smaller learning experiences that can be uniquely woven together to create amazing learning experiences for students.

When I think of the American Dream, I can’t help but think about what we are doing in education. If we are to help each student get on the path to that dream, then we must be committed to what Rose said about it, that we provide each student the “opportunity to live [their] life to the fullest potential, and [be] appreciated for who [they] are as an INDIVIDUAL.”

This can be done in education.

To be a part of making it happen and seeing it happen is my dream.