My American Identity
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Confused about who I am
Some Types of American Identity
What is our identity as Americans? Upon reflection, it seems to me that the answer depends on what period of history we are considering. Ours is an experimental society with a fluid sense of what it means to be an American. So the answer to the question of our national identity may be found variously in many places and times. Not just one but several different identities have existed in America going back to colonial times.
The following offers a selection of types:
(a) The Pilgrims and Puritans:
The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth rock in 1620 were religious Separatists escaping the Church of England. They wanted to remain Englishmen but practice their religion freely. The “Mayflower Compact” asserted their claim to self-government in a new land.
Ten years later, an even larger group of dissenting Protestants, whom we call “Puritans”, settled in Massachusetts. Like the Separatists, they believed that the Church of England had been corrupted. They wanted to purify the Church. In John Winthrop’s mind, America was a place where a “city of God” might be established. Armed with a charter from the king of England, this group of 500 persons set sail from England in March 1630. The aim was to establish “a government of Christ in exile”.
Common to both communities was the idea of a corrupt church in England. The dissenting groups that settled in the New World saw themselves as being morally superior because they overcame worldly influences and lived according to a strict moral code. They thus set themselves up as a positive example in opposition to the established church of England.
(b) American revolutionaries:
The American revolution was an anti-colonial insurrection against the government of Great Britain. Armed hostilities began in April 1775 when the British commander sent 700 troops to Concord to destroy stockpiles of fire arms which the colonialists had assembled. They were beaten back by a hastily assembled group of farmers and “minutemen”. Soon the British government was at war with all its colonies along the eastern seaboard. The colonial armies, led by General George Washington, won a military victory over the British after a six-year conflict which ended with Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.
This successful revolution has been interpreted in the light of certain political ideals. The Continental Congress produced a written document which disclosed the purpose of the rebellion. The “Declaration of Independence”, signed on July 4, 1776, was sent to the British monarch. Besides containing a list of grievances, this document stated unequivocally that the colonialists meant to establish a government independent of Great Britain. The document famously declared that “all men were created equal”, each having “a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
After the war against England was won, there was a six-year interlude in which the now independent states of North America were associated under the “Articles of Confederation”. Then, in the spring of 1787, representatives of the state governments assembled in Philadelphia to draft the constitution for a new federal government. It was an authorization to form a democratic government: a democratic government with specifically defined powers which was organized in three branches, each exerting a check upon the power of the others.
A democratic society thus took shape through the deliberations of scholarly persons intent on searching history for the best models of government. For the next half century, Americans were aware of participating in a political experiment. They lived in a democracy - a government of, by, and for the people rather than a government of hereditary monarchs. Self-governing and free, they exemplified the “democratic man”.
This new identity spilled over into the culture. Noah Webster compiled an “American dictionary” and wrote extensively on the literature and language of the American people. Ralph Waldo Emerson composed an oration on “the American Scholar” which envisioned that an new American culture would emerge that was superior to the old European culture. Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” predicted that Americans would create new and superior types of poetry, literature, sculpture, and architecture. American chauvinists were trumpeting the virtues of democracy in every area of life.
This model of American identity, like the Puritan, was formed in opposition to what existed in European. We Americans were not like the Europeans. Unlike them, we lived in a society where people were freed from the shackles of autocratic tradition. We lived in the vanguard of historical progress. Our forward-looking system of government would allow us to excel in all areas.
(c) The western frontiersman:
The English immigrants to North America settled first along the Atlantic coast. General Braddock’s expedition against a French fort near Pittsburgh drew attention to the wooded interior. By the time of the American Revolution, Daniel Boone was leading migrations into the Kentucky territory. This encroachment upon Indian lands caused friction with the natives. Bears and other wild animals were a constant danger. The white pioneers were a hardy lot who had to fight hostile Indians and provide for themselves in the wilderness. In the process, they caught the imagination of people on the eastern seaboard who were settled into comfortable lives.
Europeans were enchanted with the people who inhabited the North American wilderness. Rousseau imagined that the American Indians were “noble savages” who led uncorrupted lives. Benjamin Franklin, the philosopher-diplomat from America, was lionized in pre-revolutionary France. So, in the early years of the United States, the pioneers who pushed westward acquired a mystique of bravery and adventure. Popular novels and plays featured their exploits. Politicians such as Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln conveyed the image of the rough-and-ready westerner who rose from a humble birth to acquire power and fame. Popular literature fed this image. Davy Crockett’s popularity soared after a play was written about him.
In a second phase, the western hero explored territories west of the Mississippi river. Like Daniel Boone, resourceful guides such as Kit Carson and Jim Bridger shepherded white settlers through the mountains and deserts of the western frontier. The Sioux annihilation of General George Custer and his cavalry troops highlighted the danger.
Again, the cult of western personality advanced through publicity. Jesse Fremont, wife of the leader of an early expedition to California, promoted Kit Carson in her writings. After shooting buffalo to provide meat for railroad crews, “Buffalo Bill” Cody became an entertainment entrepreneur. His “Wild West Shows” thrilled audiences on the American east coast and in Europe. Annie Oakley was a female sharp shooter in that show. An eastern dentist turned novelist, Zane Grey, wrote novels set in the west that were picked up by Hollywood film studios.
And so, the adventurous pioneer of the western frontier provided another model of American identity. This type of person exhibited a courageous and restless spirit associated with our national progress. In contrast, the settled people living in the east led comparatively tame lives. Politically, this played out as a struggle between eastern plutocrats and small-scale farmers or miners in the west. Americans liked to believe that their nation embraced a “pioneer spirit”. With westward expansion came the rugged cowboy or wheat farmer personifying our national strength. Again, this model of personality was positioned in contrast to a less attractive alternative. Western virility was set against the effete east.
(d) The Southern romantic:
American intellectuals were on the muscle in the early days of the Republic, declaring their cultural independence from Europe. In the South, however, this independence took a different direction. A southern literary movement developed in the late 1830s, called Young America, which used literature to promote nationalism. Sir Walter Scott, the romantic poet, was one of its inspirations.
Scott’s poetry was focused on the border region between England and Scotland, two nations that had fought bitterly in the 18th century. Scott believed that, as the English people represented a fusion between Anglo-Saxons and Normans, so in a similar way a new British people would result from the fusion of English and Scottish people. Scott’s border romances concerned the cultural roots of this people. His type of literature was about creating a new national identity.
The “Young Americans” applied this scheme to American politics. One of its leading members was William Gilmore Simms of Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike Sir Walter Scott, whose works promoted unity between Scotland and England, Simms envisioned a growing political and cultural rift between the southern and northern parts of the United States. He believed that, after ethnic and cultural integration had made them strong enough to exist on their own, these distinctly different peoples should each have their own nation. Simms argued that, as the American colonies had rightly declared their independence of Great Britain in 1776, so the southern states ought some day to become independent of the United States, now dominated by the north.
In historical romances such as Ivanhoe, Scott had painted a picture of medieval England focused on its valor. The idea of chivalry, which combined good manners with deference to women, had infused Europe’s medieval culture. Sims applied this scheme to the culture of the American south. In that vein, southern gentlemen showed exaggerated courtesy to women and readily fought duels. Ideals taken from Scott’s poetry instilled a sense of cultural superiority among southerners with respect to the North. It gave southern culture an element of bravado that led to secession and war.
A northern writer, Mark Twain, later accused Sir Walter Scott of influencing the southern character to such an extent that his writings were “in great measure responsible for the (Civil) war.” Brought up on medieval romances, southern gentry believed that their superior courage, gallantry, and fighting spirit would be enough to defeat the north. It was a naive fantasy, bringing a stiff price.
(e) The Civil War soldier:
Decades of political wrangling between the slave and free states and Abraham Lincoln’s election to the U.S. Presidency in 1860 brought the withdrawal of six southern states from the Union. When Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumpter in the Charleston harbor, President Lincoln called upon the northern states to furnish troops to quell the rebellion. Over a four-year period, the northern and southern armies fought battles over a broad territory concentrated in the southeastern states. By the end of the war in April 1865, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were dead, the South was devastated, and a searing memory was left in the minds of Americans.
An event so traumatic could not help but leave its mark upon our national identity. The Civil War became a defining moment in our national history. Persons living in the North could take pride in the military victory which the Union forces had achieved. They could revere the leadership of President Lincoln, who was assassinated less than a week after the war’s end. An accomplished writer, Lincoln became a martyr to two causes, preservation of the union and abolition of slavery. Veterans of the “Grand Army of the Republic” could march to honor the magnificent cause of their youth.
Residents of the southern states were left with mixed memories. The war had left many people wounded or dead. Whole cities were left in ruins. The survivors had to deal with the legacy of an unsuccessful rebellion against the U.S. government fought to uphold slavery. On the positive side, the Confederate soldiers had fought bravely against a materially superior force. Through able leadership, tenacity and courage, the southern soldiers had kept the Union army at bay for much of the war. In Robert E. Lee, they had a hero who combined personal gallantry with tactical genius. More than Grant, he looked the part of a great military leader.
The identity left from this war was therefore regionally defined. The South was the more deeply affected. Southerners clung to the memory of that war to maintain their regional identity. Economically poor, they took pride in their culture. After the bitter days of Reconstruction, they developed a racially segregated society that lasted for almost a century. Southern charm combined with political unity and skill brought a disproportionate influence in the U.S. Congress. Until the Civil Rights movement brought disrepute to their type of society, one often heard the boast that “the South will rise again".
(f) Midwestern immigrants ca. 1900:
Think of the people who inhabit Garrison Keillor’s mythical community of “Lake Wobegon”. They are small-town people of north European stock immersed in an agricultural society. Keillor casts them as Scandinavian Lutherans and German Catholics, but the Swedes, Irish, Finns, and other immigrant groups were also well represented. In 1900, almost half the population in the upper Midwest - Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and the Dakotas - was foreign-born. These people came to America to escape social limitations and take advantage of cheap, plentiful land. They lived and worked on family farms averaging around 150 acres.
Each ethnic community aspired to maintain its culture. A survey of U.S. publications taken in 1892 identified 727 German-language and 112-Scandinavian-language newspapers, plus a smaller number in the Spanish and French languages. Church-based companies such as Augsburg Fortress published books in languages other than English. There were institutions of higher learning such as Illinois’ Augustana College and St. Olaf College in Minnesota that catered to the sons and daughters of immigrants, religiously based fraternal orders such as the Knights of Columbus (Roman Catholic) and Sons of Knute Lodge (Lutheran), and ethnically-based savings and insurance associations. The Missouri Synod Lutheran church had parochial schools whose classes were taught in German. In small villages, the church was the center of social as well as spiritual life.
Among German immigrants, there was a socialist tradition manifesting itself in coops, populist parties, and agitation to help farmers and laboring classes. The beer-drinking Germans were opposed to the Temperance movement. This ethnic community tended to be culturally on the muscle, hearkening back to a glorious Germanic tradition in music, literature, and the arts. The situation abruptly changed during World War I when German-Americans were harassed. Irish-Americans went through a period of cultural boastfulness in the early 20th century, citing the splendid example of Irish poets, novelists, and dramatists. Scandinavian-Americans took pride in their novelists, architects, poets, and sculptors.
After immigration from northern Europe peaked in the 1890s, the ethnic communities of the upper Midwest were threatened by assimilation into the mainstream American culture. Previously in favor of unrestricted immigration, these communities switched to a position of wanting to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. That attitude carried over into isolationist policies during both world wars. However, the greater threat to these communities came from falling grain prices after World War I, growth of the automobile industry and increased mechanization on the farm, and, culturally, from the assimilating influence of motion pictures, radio and television. A faint echo of the earlier culture remains in Garrison Keillor’s fictional tales of Lake Wobegon, the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo”, Ole & Lena jokes, and quirky phrases or modes of behavior thought to be associated with residents of Minnesota and neighboring states.
(g) The inventor/industrialist:
After the Civil War, the northern states experienced rapid industrial growth, spurred by new technologies and processes of production. The innovative captains of industry behind the great corporations of that age are yet another model of American identity. Some such as John D. Rockefeller and William K. Vanderbilt became wealthy through financial acumen. Others parlayed knowledge of a technology to multi-millionaire status.
Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant born into poverty who worked for others until he had enough money to start his own company. Carnegie built factories and organized steel production in more efficient ways. Then, in 1901, he sold his company to become the nation’s foremost philanthropist and philosopher of wealth.
Another type of industrialist was someone such as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford who had invented the technology underlying his business. This person typically had limited education but was able to master a body of scientific knowledge and creatively tinker with gadgets. Applying himself to projects of personal interest, he organized a business and eventually became rich.
Thomas Edison went to work as a newsboy on a railroad at the age of 12. Three years later, he became a telegraph operator. His work in that capacity gave him time to experiment on improvements in telegraphy. He received his first patent for an electrical vote recorder. Later, Edison built a research laboratory that produced inventions including the electric light bulb, the phonograph, motion-picture projector, and telephone receiver. He created a system to generate electric power in large cities such as New York.
While Henry Ford was chief engineer at the Detroit Edison Company, Edison encouraged him to continue working on his prototype of an automobile, the Ford “quadricycle”. This was the first of many Ford products. In 1903 Henry Ford demonstrated his automobile by racing on a frozen lake. He raised capital from Detroit investors to start a manufacturing company. Ford’s superior product and mass-production techniques brought huge profits. As more units were produced, Ford was able to improve product quality and lower the price while paying his workers a wage above the prevailing rate.
Ford surrounded himself with mechanically gifted persons including his long-time assistant, Charles Sorensen. Another Ford employee, William S. Knudsen, went to General Motors where he became head of the Chevrolet division and later president of the company. A Danish immigrant, Knudsen resigned his position at General Motors to supervise U.S. war production during World War II. Another technically gifted person was the famed aviator, Charles A. Lindbergh. Best known for his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic ocean in 1927, Lindbergh consulted with producers of military aircraft in the early 1940s and, after the war, with Pan-American Airlines.
With respect to personal identity, this type of individual was distinguished by creative talent, either as an inventor of new products or a business manager. Carnegie’s “gospel of wealth” has inspired persons wanting to become rich. Edison’s fruitful career set an example for others seeking fortune and fame through invention. Ford put Americans on wheels. These great inventors and industrialists exemplified the progress that could be made in a free society with a capitalist economy. They improved American life in material ways, providing new gadgets and conveniences while turning the masses into consumers of such products.
(h) The labor-union member:
The labor movement originated in Great Britain in reaction to horrendous working conditions in the factories. Industrial workers in America also organized to bargain collectively with their employer. During the 19th century, the main issue was work time. Trade unionists struggled to win the 10-hour day and, after the Civil War, the 8-hour day. A general strike called in North America for that purpose on May 1, 1886, succeeded in establishing the 8-hour day for tens of thousands of workers. This was the first “May Day”. It became an international labor holiday.
In the 20th century, the American labor movement was embodied mainly in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was an association of skilled craftsmen, and, starting in the 1930s, in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a union group that organized all workers regardless of occupation. The two organizations merged in 1956. Generally unions belonging to these organizations were limited to particular industries such as those that produced steel, built automobiles, or served food in restaurants. Their purpose was to negotiate contracts with employers on advantageous terms to the members. When employers did not agree, they might collectively withhold their labor during strikes.
The culture of the labor movement is built on the idea of worker solidarity, both internally and externally with other unions. There is an “us versus them” mentality with respect to management. The labor movement is continually trying to organize businesses whose employees are not represented by a union. Union members usually belong to a “local”, which is identified by a number and the name of the national (or international) labor organization.
Each local elects its own officers and holds periodic meetings, usually once a month. Union members often wear satin jackets to these meetings on which the identifying emblems of their local are embroidered. During strikes, they congregate at the gates or doors of their place of employment carrying picket signs to announce the strike and perhaps identify grievances.
Union members are typically better paid than workers who are not organized. Their superior economic reward depends on the union’s success at the bargaining table. Some of the principal bargaining issues include the wage rate, health-insurance coverage, paid vacation and holiday time, and other benefits. Lately, union membership has increased among government employers relative to those in private industry whose ranks are threatened by technological innovation and outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries. Unions tend to be politically active, usually associating with the Democratic Party.
While the percentage of union members in the U.S. economy has been shrinking in recent years, such membership remains an important type of identity for many Americans. Union members tend to be militant yet realistic in their aspirations. The labor movement has a proud history that would include, besides May Day, pitched battles with employers in western mining camps and in the steel mills of Pennsylvania, “sit-down strikes” at automobile plants in the 1930s, and other colorful events.
(i) The Organization Man (or Woman):
“The Organization Man” is the title of a best-selling book by William H. Whyte that was published in 1956. It described the attitudes and practices of upper- and middle-management people in American corporations at that time. Conformity to corporate norms was a prime characteristic. Rugged individualism and thrift, once virtues of the business class, had become obstacles to promotion by then.
Management people learned to think like their colleagues in the firm. They carried briefcases and dressed in gray-flannel suits. Willingness to work fifty or sixty hours a week and then do work-related entertainment or reading without feeling aggrieved was a sign of the personal loyalty that businesses liked to see in their management employees. The goal of such a person was not to be brilliant or even make contributions to the business but simply fit in. The organization man was a “normal” type of person. He readily agreed to whatever his superiors in the firm required of him.
This type of personality suited the conditions of lifelong employment that once characterized corporate America. Such a person was the antithesis of the rebellious union member. He was a college graduate who did what it took to climb the corporate ladder to a higher position. Today, however, the unspoken contract of lifelong employment in exchange for personal loyalty has been broken. One would be a fool to give one’s heart and soul to a firm that thinks little of dumping trusted employees to cut costs.
In the fast-changing environment of Silicon Valley, the ideal employee may now be a nerd dressed in jeans who knows how to write software; or, on Wall Street, the savvy investment manager with a knack for getting in and out of markets at the right time. Specialized skill is prized for its economic utility. The individual is back so long as he can perform. Yet the organization man and, increasingly, the organization woman remains a fixture in the corporate world. Education remains as important as ever. Appropriate dress is important. High corporate or professional achievers often “do lunch”.
The new breed of manager may carry Blackberries, attend rock concerts, and sympathize with the downtrodden, but his attitudes are kept within a certain range. High-level managers would never, for instance, be outspoken white racists. (Among other things, such talk might open up their firms to discrimination lawsuits.) They would never express unbridled admiration for the socialist order. They do, however, tastefully exhibit their wealth and position. They are well-rounded in today’s terms.
(j) The entertainer and his fans:
The development of the motion-picture and music-recording industries in the 20th century created a large audience for the works of famous performers. Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were celebrities of the silent screen. When sound was added to motion pictures, Hollywood featured stars such as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe. Some film performers had fan clubs whose members closely followed the star’s personal life.
The music-recording industry has produced a series of idols. Audiences became acquainted with a performer’s music by listening to the radio. When an unusually popular singer gave live performances, it could lead a public spectacle in which a mob of screaming fans showed up to cheer. In the 1940s, Frank Sinatra was a musical sensation who appealed to “Bobbysoxer” women. Hank Williams attracted a following on the Country Western music circuit. Another southern singer, Elvis Presley, later known as “the king of rock ‘n roll”, achieved notoriety as a white singer who sang “black music” and swiveled his hips provocatively on stage. An iconic superstar, he met an early death.
Hank Williams died before the age of 30. Over 20,000 persons mourned his death at a public ceremony held in Montgomery, Alabama, in the winter of 1953. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby were “crooners” with a smooth style. The big bands appealed to audiences in the 1930s. Each type of music had its own following, often generationally defined. Personal identity is found in the types of individuals responding to the various kinds of music.
Music appreciation defines a certain lifestyle. This is a kind of contemporary American identity that is more passive than some others but can also be emotionally satisfying. The performer of music, on the other hand, often follows the hard-living model established by famed writers and artists of past eras. Premature death from drugs or alcohol, or from the intensity of the creative process, adds to his aura of fame.
Another type of entertainer is the professional athlete. Here, again, the different sports - baseball, football, basketball, golf, boxing, hockey, stock-car racing, etc. - have their own types of heroes and their own fans. Some sports are classier than others. Baseball attracts a more cerebral type of fan than, say, stock-car racing. Pro wrestling is in a class by itself in terms of low-brow taste. But a champion is a champion; the winners in any sport are idolized by certain groups of people who regard them as attractive models of identity.
The sports teams cultivate a sense of fan identity. Residents of New York City are expected to root for the Yankees or Mets even if the team players were recruited from other places. Fans of the Green Bay Packers are “cheeseheads” because the state of Wisconsin specializes in cheese production. Rabid Packer fans will sometimes wear cut-outs of sliced cheese on their heads. Those who support the Minnesota Vikings may paint their faces purple (the color of the team jerseys) or wear horned caps like Viking warriors a millennium ago.
The culture of professional sports serves to balance life in a heavily corporatized society. It’s OK to act crazy while rooting for the “home team” - a good release for people who must otherwise be careful to avoid giving offense in their humor. Cashing in on the identity that a professional sports team gives to an urban community, the team owners have been known to demand that area taxpayers chip in to build new stadiums for their teams. If Minneapolis did not have its own professional-sports team, Hubert Humphrey once said, that city would become like a “cold Omaha”: it would be without personality from a Big League point of view.
(k) The Civil Rights activist:
The racially segregated society that was established in southern states following the U.S. Civil War came under attack in the 1950s following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of school integration. The federal government forced schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, to integrate. Black students enrolled at previously all-white colleges. The Rev. Martin Luther King organized a boycott of the public bus service in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to remain in a section reserved for blacks at the back of a bus. An initiative to integrate Woolworth lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, spread throughout the south.
With President Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s elevation to the Presidency came new legislation to protect the rights of black Americans. Later regulations laid the foundation for affirmative action. Fair housing laws were enacted to end race-based housing restrictions. By such laws and regulations, U.S. society became firmly committed to racial integration. There was also an effort to end race prejudice. Both government and business organizations, supported by religious clerics, took strong stands against white supremacy. Law-enforcement agencies monitored the activities of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. White racists became social pariahs.
The critical work to end racial segregation in the south was done in the 1950s and 1960s. Fifty years later, African Americans take pride in the courageous struggles of black people at that time. Many whites are also proud of having supported the struggle. However, their motivation for supporting the Civil Rights movement differs from that of blacks.
For black people, it was a matter of fighting for equal rights, which would mainly benefit themselves. It was a matter, more broadly, of promoting social progress. As when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, so the Civil Rights movement would redeem black Americans. For young white people, the motivation was, in their eyes at least, more idealistic. These often privileged whites were helping a group of innocent people oppressed by white hillbillies or bigots in the South. The white supporters of the Civil Rights movement were, in contrast, themselves broadminded and educated persons.
Many white people supported the Civil Right movement as an extension of their religious commitment. There was strong Jewish representation among this group, not only because of moral teachings in Jewish religious texts but also because Jews had likewise been victims of discrimination in a WASP-dominated society. Christianity was on both sides of the fence. While most Ku Klux Klan members were Christians supporting the racial status quo, northern church members were moving in the direction of tolerance. They were rejecting, for instance, the narrow-minded rules prohibiting association between Catholics and Protestants that were part of small-town life in favor of a more ecumenical approach.
From a vantage point many years later, the Civil Rights activist is the proud veteran of a political and social movement that gained a great victory like those war heroes who once fought in the American revolution or in the U.S. Civil War. In the aftermath of that victory, many whites who feel estranged from U.S. society identify personally with the struggle of black Americans. They see themselves as having suffered in a similar way. Their model of personal identity is based on social and political alienation. Conservatives would call it the politics of victimhood. The idea of racial oppression is an archetype supporting the genre.
(l) The educated proletarian:
When someone graduates from college, he or she acquires an identity associated with that institution. The identity becomes the more attractive the more difficult it was to be admitted to the particular college. Then, too, graduation indicates that the person’s grades were adequate. In other words, the four years spent as a student in good standing in a reputable college buys a certain image of who the graduate is. “He’s a Harvard man” means something. He’s at least above average.
The other side of the coin is that the college graduate is assumed to be on the fast track to a promising career. Reputedly, a college education is required for the mental skills needed to handle complex functions successfully in a job. That qualification helps land an interview for such positions. Some graduates make the right connection to a career and fulfill the promise of college. Others do not. Considering college enrollment is increasing while the number of well-paying jobs declines, an increasing portion of college graduates will fail to make the promised connection. As a college education ceases to be the attribute of a social elite and approaches universality, it cannot claim to matching graduates with the “better jobs”. Its significance lies mainly in its absence.
There is a group of Americans whose identities were shaped by education but who failed to connect with suitable careers. These persons may have spent some of their best years in school. They were thought to be “above average” by virtue of having earned an academic degree. Some of them graduated only to find jobs as dishwashers, taxicab drivers, or persons on the fringes of the arts scene. I would characterize them as a kind of proletariat.
So we are talking about a new type of American. These educated proletarians would not have much property unless they inherited it. Some continue to live with their parents; their period of childhood seems prolonged. But they do have aspirations. Unable to distinguish themselves in a career, they seek personal satisfaction in unusual lifestyle choices, cultivating an interest in music or the arts, involvement in political causes, or specialized interests of various kinds. They may participate in computer discussion groups. They may immerse themselves in pop culture. They are not unintelligent, though a bit disconnected from society. Their education has dropped them in a wasteland of powerlessness and neglect where they are free to do as they please.
One of the few persons able to make a living by following his creative bliss, humorist Garrison Keillor notes that “in spring, a person’s thoughts naturally turn toward what you would rather be doing than earning a living, and in America this usually means Being an Artist ... One reason the economy is so sour is that nobody wants to tote barges or lift bales, they want to be edgy and multilayered and express their anguish in some colorful and inexplicable way ... People who have a Higher Calling may feel justified in slacking off on the Lower Calling even though it is the one that pays the light bill.”
The educated proletarian stands in contrast with persons who are fulfilling their career expectations and with the owners or managers of small businesses whose lives are centered on making money. That type of person offends him because he considers himself above money-grubbing. College students were taught to be concerned about social policy, philosophy, literature, history, or science. But where can they exploit those fruits of literacy? No longer so much in a paying job. Through volunteer activities and unusual hobbies or pursuits they hold on to tokens of nobility that distinguish themselves from the crowd.
And so on the fringes of government, education, journalism, criminal justice, or the arts, we find educated men and women in unremarkable careers offering their time and expertise. We find volunteers in political campaigns. We find artists and musicians cultivating their yet undiscovered talents. These are activists in the environmental and animal-rights movements, transit or energy experts, and members of civic advisory groups. They are members of block clubs or neighborhood groups who assist elected officials in making community decisions. They are persons who do religious or charitable work. They may write thoughtful letters to the editor or publish articles and books.
The unpaid policy wonks of nearly every stripe come from this group. They do not see themselves as proletarians but as society’s prospective leaders, ever hopeful, just a break or two away from recognition. Most times, it never comes.
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