College and the American Dream

Porter Grubbs

Why are we here right now, reading the Tropolitan, at this very moment? This is less a question of philosophical existentialism and more a question of conscious decision and metacognition.
According to Pew Research Foundation’s study “Millennials in Adulthood,” a third of older millennials aged between 26 and 33 have at least a four-year college degree. Then, for what purpose do millennial college students enroll in institutes of higher education?
We can begin the search for answers to this question with more questions, ones that I am commonly asked and often hear aimed at my fellow students: “What is your major?,” “What kind of jobs are available in that field of study?,” and a favorite, “What is the starting salary for your career?”
In a nutshell, the most common answer I received when asking other Troy students what they hope to get out of a college education was a degree, especially in the context of a good job or an above-average income.
Many students, especially high school seniors and those just starting their higher education, see university as the gateway to a steady, well-paying job, which is then supposed to lead to a nice house, car and family. “The American Dream,” essentially, starts with a college education, or at least that is what many of us are taught to believe by society, the education system, and friends and family who have only the best intentions.
“I do believe most people are in college for that perfect career,” said Katie Curry, a sophomore fine arts major from Georgia. “The American Dream is ingrained in a lot of people in our generation.”
This idea manifests itself through students who seem to coast through school on auto-pilot, transitioning through grade school to high school and then college, doing only what is expected of them and finally surfacing with a degree and the question “What now?”
Many students often treat college as if it were a school for the cartography of life. By the completion of their senior theses, they should have the remainder of their existence mapped out in detail with a clear path marked in pen from one major milestone to the next. While this may seem ideal to some, it is impossible and overshadows the true purpose of education: to explore and discover our own hearts and minds and seek that which fulfills us not only physically, but also emotionally and intellectually.
“College is a place where you learn how to think for yourself,” said Alexis Smith, a Harvard University senior social anthropology major from Dothan. “Everyone undergoes some type of personal and/or spiritual growth as a result of being in university.”
This is true of any place of higher education, and although many published studies, including Pew Research Center’s “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” affirm that millennial college graduates earn more in wages annually, have a lower unemployment rate and are less likely to live in poverty than their less-educated counterparts, it is important to pursue curiosity and introspection and refrain from being sidetracked by what has become known as “The American Dream.”
If we take a look at the evolution of this ideology, even before the popular images of white picket fences and All-American families of the 1940s and ’50s, we find a goal that is simple and personal rather than one that requires an excessive abundance of material goods and a lifetime of labor in the system.
James Truslow Adams’ “The Epic of America” explains that “The American Dream” “is 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 … recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Perhaps the best description of this dream, this human right, is by Thomas Wolfe: “the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his vision and his manhood can combine to make him.”
Maybe college isn’t solely about attaining a degree, a ticket to the workforce and a piece of paper that may or may not measure our true value to society. Maybe we are here in order to learn to live, to love our work, to discover our ever-changing selves and to decide our vision for the present moment so that we can fit the mold of our own identity and take that with us to shine in the world outside.
Porter Grubbs is a sophomore dance major from Dothan.

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