Dreaming in a Strange Land

Early this past week, a third year student at a rural state college wrote an editorial for the newspaper there, noting that “in a country that prides itself on being the land of equality, we are not all equal, not even close.”

She said that while she supported the proactive role that Occupy Wall Street has taken throughout the past few months, that it is about time someone started to express the distaste Corporate America has left in the mouths of many, at the end of the day, from her perspective, Occupy Wall Street is not where she wants us to put our time and energy.

Occupy Wall Street, she declared, is misguided in their efforts for reforming the system. Instead we need to Occupy the Classroom. The root of America’s problem, she said, is that we are not giving education the time and money it deserves.  Too many children and youth are being denied access to quality teachers, equipped classrooms, and the chance to succeed.  To live out their dreams.

Education, as high as an individual has the will and skills to go, is a far better return, she reminded us, than many stock investments.

This is an American, we-the-people problem that needs to be remedied immediately, she urged. It’s time to Occupy, she demanded, in the name of our future.

A couple of days later in that same college town, there was what has been described as a  raucous downtown protest with thousands of students pouring into the streets, clashing with the police and damaging property.  Expressing their anger, making their demands.

Not for reform of Wall Street or our education system. No, they were drawn out of their dorm rooms and their lecture halls in what has been reported as a massive display of anger at the Board of Trustees’ decision to fire Joe Paterno, the 84 year old head football coach of Pennsylvania State College since 1966 (as well as ousting  the college president). Fired in the wake of charges against a former top assistant coach of the sexual abuse of young boys, who knows how many of them, over a period of years.

Incensed, not at the abuse, but at the loss of their beloved athletic leader, head of a winning team at a college where football rules.  But where also the same coach devised a concept known as the Great Experiment there—finding a way to balance big time athletics and academics—promoting a culture of excellence in both. And yet and still somehow getting it so terribly wrong.

It is sad and I believe disgraceful that these students took to the streets, not to express their indignity at what had been done to these numbers of young boys in the men’s locker room of their own school, but out of fevered loyalty to this larger than life figure, and blinding attachment to a winning team.

This story will rise and fall on the media radar, as all stories do, and some will say that this is what college students are all about these days: tailgate parties, and keggers, and sports mania, to the point of overlooking abuse and cover-ups.

That they seem detached from the large issues of the day, even the ones that would seem to most immediately and directly impact them. That they dream of the next touchdown, the next big win, the next division or national title, and little else.

Which is not true if we follow stories of other on campus outbursts and outside the campus outbursts— twittered stirrings  and even some throw- back sit- ins–protesting  the ever escalating costs of college and the diminishing quality of what they are getting in return, as faculty cuts increase class size and reduce the number of courses offered. And the American Dream further and further out of reach.

The American Dream, our national ethos, in which freedom includes a promise of the possibility of prosperity and success. In the words of James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

And there has been little change in definition over all these years.

There is actually a Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, which released the results of a second annual American Dream Survey earlier this year. What they learned is that on a scale of one to 10, most people gave the Dream’s condition a mediocre score of from 3 to 6, only 23 percent convinced  that the country is going in the right direction, a 15 percent net drop from a year ago.

Between the first and the second survey there had not been much of a change, with two exceptions. Confidence in the economy has lessened. Last year the majority ( 51 percent) still felt the U.S. economy would improve over the next year or so. Now only 41 percent expect it to get better.

The second change is what might be called a generational fissure. Last year 60% of Americans surveyed felt it was harder to reach the Dream today than it was for their parents’ generation. Today the number has surged to 69%.

Nowhere is the decline in optimism more dramatic than among African Americans, a sense of despair, of dreams almost permanently deferred. Nowhere is optimism higher than among recent immigrants, who continue to hold markedly more positive views about their country and the Dream than other Americans.

Who does the American Dream look like? For some, Steve Jobs, who shortly up until his tragically untimely death from pancreatic cancer just a few weeks ago, was CEO of Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios, would have fit the bill. Brilliant, ingenious, entrepreneurial, in many ways self-made. Wildly successful.

And while he was invited to deliver the commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, for Jobs, a university degree was not part of his resume, or essential to his dream-making.

As he admitted that year in a speech that has gone viral several times over, this was the closest he had ever gotten to a college graduation.

He told them that he dropped out of Reed College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months before he finally quit.

So why did he drop out?

His biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student and she decided to put him up for adoption. She felt very strongly, he said, that he should be adopted by college graduates so everything was set for him to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except it turned out the couple really wanted a girl, so his parents, who had been on the waiting list, were called in the middle of the night and were asked if they wanted this newborn baby boy. And they said yes, of course.

When his biological mother found out that the adoptive parents were not college graduates, in fact his father had never even graduated from high school, she refused at first to sign the paperwork, but relinquished when they promised that he would someday go to college. But 17 years later when he landed in a high price private school and all of his working class parents’ savings were being spent on college tuition and he saw no value in it, he eventually left. And trusted that all would, in his words, work out OK.

The rest is history, and for Jobs the lack of an advanced degree did not disadvantage him.You.ve got to find what you love, he told those Stanford graduates, and so he did.

It may seem like he was on to something, dodging those tuition bills and for him a wasted four years, though not helpful to hear by those many students who have gone the distance, especially in the past few years.  When the studying was over for 2010, college graduates in Georgia owed an average of $19,000 in student loan debt.

Nationwide, graduates carry an average debt of $25,000, the highest debt on record. Struggling to begin to repaying their debt, they have entered a job market that is among the most depressed ever for their age group. They have moved out of  their campuses, degrees in hand, if they are lucky hired to drive catering trucks or put up dry wall,  work as line cooks or receptionists in spas. I know, because this is the story of my own young adult son and his friends.

Among men 20-25, the unemployment rate is 15.8 percent, with many more uncounted, never having had the chance to enter the fulltime workforce at all. On an unpainted wooden fence in the Woodruff Park Occupy Atlanta encampment, one 24 year old wrote that he goes to school fulltime and gets an average of four hours sleep a night. I am hoping the degree I earn will help me pay off my $80,000 student loan… the outlook of this is dim.

Another wrote that all of his life he has seen immigrants being denied the right to receive scholarships to go to school and citizens being drowned in debt, due to going to school, and once they finish NO JOBS. So what’s the point anymore?

Yet in the long run, or even the shorter run, the American Dream is inescapably linked with education, as columnist David Brooks has pointed out.  While he may not be as concerned as some of us might want him to be about the economic and status gap caused by corporate practices in this country, he does argue convincingly that ultimately the achievement or lack of a college degree plays a crucial role in so many disparities: income differences, health status, marital status, community involvement and others.  In the chance for a good life for ourselves and our families.

The American Dream Survey, while pessimistic in part, is hopeful and compassionate in its view of who can and cannot be included.  As we note and celebrate the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants, a majority of us believe that we still are a “beacon of opportunity” to immigrants who want to live out their dreams, rather than viewing immigrants as coming to America mainly to seize jobs or accept handouts. Immigration, most (more than 60%) agree, is important to keeping the American Dream alive.

Alive for young immigrants who have been raised in the U.S. and who have managed to succeed despite the challenges of being brought here without proper documentation. The approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school, many at the top of their classes, who cannot go to college, join the military, work or otherwise pursue their dreams.

They are called the 1.5 generation, immigrants largely raised in this country, and therefore sharing much in common with second generation Americans. These students are culturally American, growing up here, and often having little attachment to their country of birth.

Young people like David Cho, whose parents came from South Korea when he was 9 and wants to serve in the air force.

Young people like Mayra Garcia, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was two. Now 18, she is a member of the National Honor Society, graduating from high school with a 3.9 GPA.

Young people like Juan Gomez who also arrived here when he was two, finishing in the top 20 of his class in his high school in Miami.

Young people like Barbara, who does not want to share her last name, who, as much as she would like to attend a state university, is working at a local restaurant, afraid of being discovered, of being deported if she should apply for student aid.

What do we do with these children, these children who live in the shadows of fear of deportation and separation from family? What do we do with what one Lutheran minister has named the children of captivity, who excel in school, against all odds and sensibilities, knock on the door of higher education and find admittance only to find that they do not possess the proper documents to utilize their education, intelligence and skill?

Our immigration law currently has no mechanism to consider their special circumstances, and the attempt to reform this, the federal DREAM ACT, (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) which would offer a potential path to citizenship, once with bipartisan support, is now languishing in congress.

This legislation would allow upstanding high school students without documents to obtain a temporary visa so they can attend school, travel and work legally, and after ten years apply for a green card and lawful permanent residency.

DREAMers – our young people seeking a route to citizenship—-are not asking for special access or treatment. They seek to sing their songs of Zion, pursue their dreams of hope and justice freely, in a land they have come to know as home. To contribute to our country, to serve the United States, to be part of our collective American Dream. How long shall we — can we– defer their dreams?

In the words of African American poet Langston Hughes- what happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore? And then run?… Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?