Inequality and the American Dream

The 2016 Honors Colloquium, as one of our speakers, Professor Jefferson Cowie stated “Couldn’t be more timely, couldn’t be more relevant to what is going on today.” As our interminable presidential election nears a conclusion, it is apparent that Americans hold widely divergent views on whether the American Dream is still vital and accessible. Further, Americans appear to disagree whether the path to the American Dream is equitable and fair for all Americans.  I think that much of the anger and resentment expressed during this particular election derives from the reality, or the fear, that the American Dream has been denied to or taken from people. Others may fear that the very existence of the American Dream, at least for them, depends upon the outcome of this election. 

This is real to many of us here at the University of Rhode Island who have benefited from, or are pursuing, the American Dream.  As I see it, the American Dream is the hope, indeed, the expectation, that by hard work, perseverance, and, when necessary, sacrifice, individuals can build a better future for themselves, their families, and others that they love.

This was certainly the case for my family.  My father’s side was founded by immigrants from Ireland and Switzerland, who came to the United States at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th, eventually settling in California by way of Montana.  My mother’s family came to California from the border country of Texas and New Mexico at the height of the devastating drought (the “dust bowl”) that afflicted that region during the Great Depression. All of them migrated in search of the opportunity to build a new life and – despite all the hardships endured – they succeeded.

We must recognize, no matter how difficult our own path may have been, that the path for other Americans may be even rougher, steeper, and more challenging than our own.  “Equality of opportunity” might be an American ideal, but it has never been, and is not now, the reality for all Americans. Education, and especially higher education, has been one of the most productive mechanisms to fight inequality and to level the path to achieving the American Dream.

But we must acknowledge that access to a quality education, and to higher education, is not equally available to all.  One of the principal motivations for the creation of land grant universities like the University of Rhode Island was to provide access to higher education for all Americans. In the words of the Morrill Act of 1862 each state was to have a university that would: “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”  The “industrial classes”, that is the people, the sons and daughters, of those who worked on the farms and ranches, and in the mills and factories of 19th century America, would have the benefit of higher education.  The opportunity to go to college would no longer be an exclusive privilege of the wealthy, the merchants and business owners, or large landowners.  More than any other creation of American government, the land grant universities and colleges, including those established by the 1890 extension of the Morrill Act for institutions devoted to educating Black Americans (see http://www.1890universities.org), have provided the means to make the American Dream a reality.

Our tasks of mitigating inequality and creating equal opportunity are far from complete. The University of Rhode Island, and many of its peers, do not have the resources to provide all the financial assistance that may be needed by our students. There are internal barriers to the recruitment, retention, and graduation of students pursuing their own American Dream. Our community does not yet consistently provide the welcoming, supportive, inclusive environment necessary for all our students to thrive or to pursue their dreams and aspirations on an equal footing.

We are, I am convinced, making progress towards this goal.  The Honors Colloquium, the expansion of the honors program, the new general education curriculum, the work of the Office of Community, Equity, and Diversity, the expansion of the faculty, the ongoing success in diversifying our faculty, the emphasis on living-learning communities, and much, much more, are all evidence of URI’s commitment to doing all it can to ensuring that the American Dream is in reach for all those who call America “home”.