Category Archives: Lesson 5 Thinking about the American Dream

Lesson 5: Thinking about the American Dream

Critical Thinking Lesson 5: The American Dream (gender, inequality)

Let’s start by reviewing one of the readings.

  1. Excerpt from Cal Jillson, The American Dream in History, Politics and Fiction, pp., 1-8.

“The Ambiguity of the Dream in American History”

Call Jillson explains a way of thinking about the difference between the concepts of a ‘creed’ and a ‘myth’, and more specifically, between the American creed and the American Dream (as a kind of myth).

What is a creed? definition


  • any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination.
  • any system or codification of belief or of opinion.
  • an authoritative, formulated statement of the chief articles of Christian belief, as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed.

We can amend this definition slightly, to include the way the word has come to be used for America:

  • an authoritative, formulated statement of the chief articles of American belief, as the in the Founding Fathers’ Creed, stated in the Declaration of Independence

What is the American creed?

The fundamental values of the American Creed would include liberty, equality, individualism, populism, laissez-faire, and the rule of law under a constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and their revolutionary colleagues in the Congress of 1776 grounded the new nation’s independence on the declaration “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The luminous phrases of the Declaration of Independence put liberty, equality, and opportunity at the core of the American Creed. Jillson

Samuel Huntington concluded his study of the American Creed by declaring that “the same core values appear in virtually all analyses: liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, and the rule of law under a consti-tution.”5 Seymour Martin Lipset concluded that “the American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.”6 Both Huntington and Lipset highlighted liberty, equality, and individualism. These are the Jeffersonian core of the American Creed.

What is the American Dream?

James Truslow Adams’s classic Epic of America (2001) popularized “the American dream, that 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.”

The American Dream is the promise that the country holds out to the rising generation and to immigrants that hard work and fair play will almost certainly lead to success.

All who are willing to strive, to learn, to work hard, to save and invest will have every chance to succeed and to enjoy the fruits of their success in safety, security, and good order. Education (physical and intellectual skills), good character (honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, religiosity), hard work (frugality, saving, investing), and a little luck form a broad pathway to the American Dream. Jilson

The American Dream today (via sport and advertising)

In a common sense (or everyday) kind of understanding, the American dream involves the idea that if an individual puts in the effort then she should be able to achieve the success she deserves.

Individual responsibility is a key idea: if someone succeeds, it is attributed to their individual efforts, they are regarded as having made the best of their talents (whatever their talents are). Conversely, if someone fails, then it is their fault (they didn’t work hard enough to realize their dream).

This idea is sometimes referred to as meritocracy (society is ruled by the principle that people get what they deserve).

Let’s use some contemporary sports advertising and film as discussion texts to think about the American dream in some of its current forms.

We’ll start by watching a little of American football.

OK, so that’s Colin Kaepernick as Quarterback for the San Fransisco 49ers. Good quarterbacks have to be strong, fast, brave and smart. Kaepernick has all of those attributes and is also articulate and charming. Those qualities are some of the reasons that Nike have chosen him as the face of their Just Do It advertising campaign.

Have a look at this recent Nike commercial starring the footballer.

Class discussion

Let’s talk about what the commercial, part of Nike’s Just Do It campaign represents in relation to the American dream.

  • Describe what’s going on in the commercial:
  • Who are the actors? What do they do?
  • What are the messages being communicated? How do they relate to the American Dream?

Now let’s talk about the readings from Rereading America.  

  1. Gary Colombo, et al., Rereading America, 33-38

What is Critical Thinking?

Professor Colombo and his colleagues ask us to think of critical thinking as active thinking, as a questioning and challenging form of thinking for ourselves rather than passively receiving and learning knowledge by rote. (p 33).

You can’t just memorise things a teacher tells you to demonstrate your critical thinking, in fact, your teacher is just a facilitator, you are the agent responsible for your own critical thinking.

Passive learner Active thinker
Collects and recites facts Probes facts, looks for underlying assumptions and idea
Is chronological, focussed on remembering dates and events in their correct order Probes for motives, causes, explanations
Is monological, developing arguments from her own perspective Imagines and listens to others’ points of view
Is a linear think, moves directly ahead on the basis of the point of view she already has Reflects on and may refine, strengthen, enlarge or reshape her own point of view and the ideas that go with it in light of the point of view of others
Is a closed thinker, seeking to work within the realms of assumptions she holds and received facts and opinions Is an open yet sceptical thinker, receptive to new/other ideas, but also careful to test them
Is a knowledge sponge (absorbs knowledge) Is a knowledge shaper (creates interpretations and meaning)


Thinking with and beyond our cultural myths and assumptions

Remember the two ways of thinking about myths we discussed in earlier lessons?

  1. Romantic: pointing to deeper underlying meaning
  2. Rationalist: stories or ideas that are untrue

We, like Americans and most different kinds of people, live with or are surrounded by cultural creeds and myths. Some of our myths might sustain us with deep underlying truths or relate to cultural assumptions that we might want to question.

Colombo et al help us think about that in terms of Greek myths:

You may associate the word myth primarily with the myths of the ancient Greeks. The legends of gods and heroes like Athena, Zeus, and Oedipus embodied the central ideals and values of Greek civilization notions like civic responsibility, the primacy of male authority, and humility before the gods.

The stories weretrue” not in a literal sense but as reflections of important cultural beliefs. These myths assured the Greeks of the nobility of their origins; they provided models for the roles that Greeks would play in their public and private lives; they justified inequities in Greek society; they helped the Greeks understand human life and destiny in terms thatmade sensewithin the framework of that culture.

We could, by way of comparison, think about some of your Chinese creeds, myths and values.

Creed Values/beliefs Related mythical forms
a.  Confucianism Traditional importance of learning Ancient texts, Stories, poems, drama, film, painting, government representations
Filiality respect for ancestors and elders, love and support of family Stories, poems, drama, government representations (The China Dream)
Harmony; keeping things in balance Stories, poems, drama, film, painting, government representations (The China Dream)
b.  Tanxia, uniting ‘all under heaven’. Unity of China, sacrifice for the greater good Stories, poems, drama, film (Wu Xia film)
c.   Communism Comradeship, fraternity, equality Drama, film, dance, posters, government representations (The China Dream)

As critical thinkers, we might recognize that we live with the myths and their associated values and creeds, but also question the assumptions that might go with them, as well as the ideas and practices that follow from those assumptions.

Questioning romantic mythology (in The Wandering Earth)

Let’s take the mythology of a recent film for example. The Wandering Earth is a Chinese sci-fi that creates what we might call a romantic mythical form (fictional story embodying underlying truths or values).

Discussion question: Which creeds and values (underlying truths) do you think the film represents?

Answer: All of them.

Questioning rational mythology (in The Wandering Earth)

We could fact and assumption check our myths to see if they are actional mythical in a rational sense rather than or as well as in a romantic sense.

For example, we could question the rational mythology of The Wandering Earth in terms of the key issue it relates to, which is environmental disaster and the possibility a species extinction.

Discussion Questions

1.What observations, thoughts or questions might we raise if we were to do that?

Rather than rejecting the underlying creeds, that questioning might result in different kinds of stories, for example …?

This kind of questioning involves some of the critical thinking standards we looked at last week.

2.Can you think of which ones?

Critically thinking about the American Dream

Colombo and colleagues suggest that Americans cannot ignore the mythology of the American dream …

whether you embrace or reject the dream of success, you can’t escape its influence. As Americans, we are steeped in a culture that prizes individual achievement; growing up in the United States, we are told again and again by parents, teachers, advertisers, Hollywood writers, politicians, and opinion makers that we, too, can achieve our dream that we, too, canJust Do It” if we try.

However, people might take different positions on it. They give two examples:

  1. For some Americans, the dream of success is the very foundation of everything that’s right about life in the United States.
  2. For others, the American dream is a cultural mirage that keeps workers happy in low-paying jobs while their bosses pocket the profits of an unfair system.

We might say that a person who takes the first position endorses the romantic mythology of the American Dream. They might do so unconsciously, just as part of their everyday common sense. Or they might have thought about it critically, and still believe in the dream.

A person who takes the second position might be considered to be questioning aspects of the American Dream as rational mythology.

Discussion questions

Let’s think about how a thinker might come to hold that (second) kind of view:

The American dream is a cultural mirage that keeps workers happy in low-paying jobs while their bosses pocket the profits of an unfair system.

  1. How might we use our reading of Colombo et al., pages 652-662. to think about this kind of view:
  2. What standards and components of critical thinking might we use to form and support such a view?

Questions after reading Robert Putnam’s chapter extract.

1. Which three criteria of equality does Robert Putnam use to discuss changing access to the American dream of improvement in Port Lincoln? How does he do that?

2. What has changed since the 1950s in relation to access to the American dream for Port Lincoln residents in terms of those three categories?

3. What is the heart of the matter in Putnam’s extract?

4. What aspects of critical thinking does his piece demonstrate?

Cultural myths can hamper critical thinking; have adverse real-world consequences

Gary Colombo and colleagues give the example of myths of gender roles that Americans might have grown up with.

The culturally dominant roles we see for women and men appear to us as self-evident: for many Americans it still seems natural for a man to be strong, competitive, and heterosexual, just as it may seem unnatural for a man to shun competitive activity or to be romantically attracted to other men.

Our most dominant cultural myths shape the way we perceive the world and blind us to alternative ways of seeing and being. When something violates the expectations that such myths create, it may even be called unnatural, immoral, or perverse.

As we discussed a few weeks ago, I grew up with these kinds of myths of gender roles, which included corresponding ideas about women (they should be soft, feminine, supportive, and attractive).

Let’s put those kinds of gender myths in a table:

Masculine Feminine Gay
Strong soft unnatural
competitive supportive immoral
heterosexual attractive perverse

Discussion questions

1. How might we critically think about these traditional (Western) gender myths?

2. How might you compare and connect them to traditional Chinese gender myths?

3. What are some of the real world problems that might arise from belief in these kinds of myths?

Historical example of critical thinking about gender

1950s Chinese gender roles and mythse13-276

In 1950s China. The new PRC questioned the way that filiality was imagined because it made men (and particular sons) more important than women (and particularly daughters) and many families practiced bride sale in order to support elders (filiality). This social order was imagined in the form of traditional Confucian household, and extended family with the eldest male at the top and women working inside in caring roles.

The Communists started a new mythology of the ‘iron’ women that related strongly to its creed and the value of (gender) equality. Filiality was not rejected, but new mythology arose (produced by Communist artists, writers, etc) and a new form of harmony (balance) gave woman a more equal role.