There is a great deal of worry right now that our children will not have a better life than we have had. The narrative goes that American progress has been a continuum where the children will have it better than the parents, just as the parents had it better than the grandparents. In many respects that is how many of us define “America”—a journey of continual progress.
When we are not xenophobic we also will allow that such a belief is what has motivated many immigrants to come to the United States. My great great-grandparents, dumped off the shore of Virginia in the mid-19th century, were not so different from families that come from Latin America today. They wanted a better life for their kids.
But I have been thinking about what we mean by progress in relation to how I grew up. I’ve discovered a discrepancy. I was raised in a rigidly middle-class family. My father came from a poor family and my mom from the lower-middle class. I am the youngest of three boys.
In the midst of all this angst about our economy and that our kids may not have it better than we do, I thought to the lessons my father gave me as a little boy. I honestly can never remember him telling me once that his hope or expectation was that I would be wealthier than he was. I can remember him reminding me again and again that he expected me to work hard and to be better than he was. He used to tell me ever so gently that because I was the youngest I also had a special obligation—I had to be better than my brothers.
We might critique such commentary as part of the American myth, and I don’t want to overdo it; he was no Great Santini driving me again and again to somehow be “better.” But he did have a naïve belief in “progress” and “hard work” and “responsibility.” He was certainly no socialist; he voted for Eisenhower—and then Kennedy (how could an Irish Catholic not?). But income and wealth was not how he defined “a better life.” The responsibility he passed along to me was to live a “better” life. But by “better” he meant that I needed to work hard, and that in the work itself I would be rewarded.
What worries me today is that we equate “better” or “hard work” with income. If you do not make more money than I made then you somehow have failed, and I have as well. The reliance on income as the indicator of happiness is a false god, bereft of passion, spirit, and meaning. We somehow have to right the ship of meaning and help one another recognize what’s important in life. Such a lesson is central to what those of us in postsecondary institutions should be helping students consider, but we are not.