Public Schools and The American Dream

Public Schools and The American Dream

In the years to follow, I hope we will dedicate ourselves as a nation to giving all our children the world-class education they need. There is no challenge more important.
—President Bill Clinton, 2000

There is no greater test of our national responsibility than
the quality of the education we provide.
—Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, 2000

We have a great national opportunity — to ensure that every child, in every public school, is challenged by high standards. . .[t]o build a culture of achievement that matches the optimism and aspirations of our country.
—Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, 2000


It is no coincidence that the president and the candidates were echoing one another in the fall of last year; they were reflecting public opinion as well as deep values held by almost all Americans. Throughout the 1990s, most Americans agreed that education is “the most important problem facing the nation,” or “most important in [my] vote for president,” or one of “the most important factors in determining how a child grows up.” Even the Economist lectured Britain’s former subjects that the new American president “will have to get to grips with the public education system. This is America’s last best chance to tackle” what it called the “failure” of public education.

Citizens, politicians, and journalists are right about the importance of schooling. Education increasingly determines a person’s job prospects and income. It has more and more influence on whom one will marry. Its impact is more important than anything else (possibly excepting wealth) in determining whether one participates in politics, what one believes politically, and how much political influence one has. It is the arena in which the United States has sought to deal with racial domination and class hierarchy, to turn immigrants into Americans, to turn children into responsible citizens, to create and maintain democracy—or at least its semblance. Public education is, in short, the place where Americans seek to transform the ideology of the American dream into practice.

The American dream is the promise that all who live in the United States have a reasonable chance to achieve success as they understand it (material or otherwise) through their own efforts and resources. Equal opportunity to become unequal, to succeed (or fail) because of what one does, not who one is, is a central part of the American dream.

The American dream is a brilliant ideological invention, although its realization is considerably less impressive. The institutions, practices, and ideas in which it is embodied encourage each person in the United States to pursue success and create the framework within which everyone can do that. They hold each person responsible for achieving h...

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