What is the American Dream?

The American Dream.

The theme of the Federation of State Humanities Councils' annual conference was "Re-imagining the American Dream."

A key element to re-imagining a national concept is to understand the many ways it is perceived, and how they came to be. Our Declaration of Independence states as a self-evident truth the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What does this mean to us as a nation of individuals?

National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach has said, "Just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas."

To consider the American Dream and find out what humanities thinkers believe and hope about it, we have gathered some ideas from others to include here:

  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest thinkers and speakers in American history, referred to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at the outset of his Aug. 28, 1963 speech delivered to more than 200,000 people who had gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., after participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He spoke of the fierce urgency of now, saying, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy." He also said, "Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach has said, "Just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas."
  • James Truslow Adams, historian and American writer who coined the term "American Dream," wrote that the dream was 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 circumstances of birth or position."

  • From Dictionary.com: American Dream, noun, 1. the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American; 2. a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.
  • From the World English Dictionary: American Dream, noun, the notion that the American social, economic, and political system makes success possible for every individual
  • Martin Luther King said, "I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'" Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • New Zealand-born Australian country music singer Keith Urban said that his father had "a fascination with American culture and the American dream. He fell in love with the idealism."
  • According to a recent study by the Minneapolis-based consulting firm WomanWise, results show that more than 70 percent of survey respondents said the American Dream has changed for women over the past decade. "Women are recalibrating the American Dream - back to what it meant at its origins. Over the years as a nation, we got sidetracked by a sense of entitlement. In this study, we found that the American Dream has evolved to once again be much more about the pursuit of happiness and personal choice," said WomanWise CEO Dori Molitor.

Read what a few of our friends and colleagues have offered:

  • In my classroom, we always analyzed,  at the beginning of the year, the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution beginning with a word search.  Then we created a preamble and articles by which to govern our classroom all year long.

    The Preamble, I think, embodies the ideas of the American Dream.  I still get chills thinking of the quality of the 4th graders' discussions about what all that means.

  • Words that pop to mind also are:  freedom, individuality, creativity, compassion, truth.
  • A high school history teacher told us that a democracy is only as good as the extent to which the majority honors the rights and ideas of the minorities, and that has stuck with me for a long time!
  • Terry Tempest Williams said "The American Dream is too small. It's time for a dream of the earth."  That's what I think the American Dream should be: a dream of the earth.
  • On the way to Gunnison, we pass this icon of American Identity, Mt. Princeton, and apt illustration of that dream as I see it.  A pure world, a smooth road, and institutes of higher learning remembered, and dwarfed, by the mountains that in our state, they also name.


What are your ideas of the American Dream?

Contact: Sandy Tucker, tucker@coloradohumanities.org with your thoughts.