Students probe the promise of American dreams

Ask six people what the "American dream" means to them, and you're likely to get six different answers. To some, it's the chance to pursue their interests; to others, it's the vision of a nice home and a new car.

Despite the lure of the concept, it's not something most people think about much. But one group of Boston students is trading a little free time on summer nights to figure out what lies behind an idea as American as apple pie.

Defining 'the dream'

On a hot evening last week, these students shuffled into a cool, well-accoutred classroom at Boston College and got to work on their first task: writing down their own versions of the American dream.

One student suggests that every American wants "40 acres and a mule" or, as he translates it into modern terms, "a car, a garage, 2.5 kids, equal opportunity for everyone ... [and] a house."

Colleague Gabriel Verdagner takes a philosophical stance. "Traditionally, I think it is liberation from oppression," he says. But, "realistically, it is another story." He also suggests that the American dream provides the "opportunity for equality."

Professor David McMenamin offers students a road map as they sort through these ideas. Over the course of the class, students will read several books, including "People of Paradox," by Michael Kammen, and handouts on John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They'll reach deep into the past by analyzing biblical messages and reflecting on ancient writings.

These are not the sources most students have used to formulate their views on the dream. Class participants identify several influences, including television and their individual upbringings, as integral in shaping their perspectives. And they are quick to note how an ideal can develop into an impossible myth: one student recalls a Haitian cab driver who "thought that you could drink milk off the trees" before he arrived.

McMenamin chimes in: "[Alexis de] Tocqueville talks about America as the only country that was an idea before it was a country," he says. "America is the only one that presented the ability to start from scratch. Other countries had culture long before they became states."

Pull of the promised land

McMenamin plans to have the class trace various themes - especially the insatiable demand for a better life - back to the Enlightenment, and from there to Plato, and finally to the beginnings of civilization, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

He also will touch on the enduring allure of the "promised land," pointing out that just as Moses led his people to the promised land, the Puritans considered themselves divinely ordained to settle New England.

This "notion of the promised land is as old as humanity ... [In the] writings of virtually any other culture, you find parallels with these stories," McMenamin explains.

From Mayflower to Maytag

The students will also explore how the American dream has evolved, examining its ties to contemporary issues such as immigration and education, and finishing with projections for the future.

McMenamin will cover the ideals that have motivated Americans: from the Mayflower passengers' drive for religious freedom, to political goals and a more material, commercial definition of the dream that took root early and continues today.

McMenamin's students comment on freedom of choice as a perennial, unifying ideal - though one that has been challenged throughout American history, and most recently during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

One student explains that the dream signifies being "able to attain anything you want, an education, a family."

At least, that's the definition she chooses tonight.

Questions from US citizenship test interview

The INS typically asks those applying to be citizens about a dozen questions on America's history and government. The ones below are selected from a list of 100 that interviewers use.

1. What do the stripes on the flag mean?

2. Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court?

3. How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?

4. How many representatives are there in Congress?

5. Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death"?

6. Which president was the first commander in chief of the US military?

7. Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?

8. Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner?

9. Name one amendment that guarantees or addresses voting rights.

10. In what year was the Constitution written?

11. Why did the Pilgrims come to America?

12. For how long do we elect each senator?

ANSWERS: (1) They represent the 13 original states; (2) William Rehnquist; (3) 27; (4) 435; (5) Patrick Henry; (6) George Washington; (7) Thomas Jefferson; (8) Francis Scott Key; (9) 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th; (10) 1787; (11) For religious freedom; (12) Six years

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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