Debating the Death of the American Dream
by Rachel Stevens
December 28, 2015
The “American Dream” is dead, say nearly half of America’s young people. This startling statistic comes from a recently released nationwide survey conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which polled Americans aged 18 to 29 regarding their attitudes on current political issues.
The same survey also showed that while just 16 percent of youth believe that the U.S. government is offering solutions to current problems, only 20 percent describe themselves as “politically engaged,” and 58 percent acknowledge that they do not really follow national news.
What a worrisome disconnect. How can anyone expect to change a dysfunctional government while abstaining from the political process? How can we restore faith in the “American Dream” if the next generation of Americans has already thrown up their hands? We now face the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies born of misplaced defeatism.
The truth is, the “American Dream” will always be alive as long as Americans believe in the value of their own efforts, hold their freedom sacred, and work to elect responsible leaders who will do the same.
Young Americans today are the nation’s largest generation, and they will soon inherit control over the levers of power, whether they want it or not. If they maintain their current sense of faithlessness, the “American Dream” could be left to wither and die of neglect.
That is why it is so critical that we find a way to cultivate political engagement and civic responsibility in future generations. This demands serious participation; we must not allow the ideological echo chamber of the blogosphere and retweet-style “slacktivism” to become a lazy substitute for the hard work of genuine dialogue and statesmanship. We desperately need efforts to reignite the spark of civic passion that drove our Founding Fathers, that has historically made this country great, and that forms the foundation of the “American Dream.”
While no one program is a panacea, I am firmly convinced that tremendous potential can be found in the establishment of debate-based education and competitive debate teams in America’s schools.
Numerous university studies have shown that, regardless of demographics, participation in debate substantially improves students’ academic performance by virtually all measures, while simultaneously improving self-confidence and decreasing high-risk behaviors.
But its citizenship benefits are equally powerful. I have seen firsthand, over and over again, its power to instill young people with strong critical thinking skills and deeply personal connections to political issues of national importance. These debate students then go on to carry that sense of concern with them for the rest of their lives.
Debating grabs kids’ attention because it is competitive. The challenge offers huge advantages over other kinds of social studies curricula: it taps into their natural desire to prove themselves in front of their classmates, and drives motivation due to the concrete rewards that are built-in (winning the debate, receiving the trophy). In pursuit of victory, students must learn to conduct research, evaluate arguments critically and consider difficult problems. They initially become engrossed in trying to win the game, but before long, they find themselves genuinely concerned with the issues themselves.
If you continue to believe in the “American Dream,” engaging young people is an important way to protect its survival. As a component of this, I urge you to show support for debate education in your local schools. If none is available, please reach out. The National Center for Policy Analysis’s numerous youth programs offerings can help assist you in bringing these critical opportunities to students in your community.
When young people are given the skills and confidence to effectuate positive change in their lives and their communities, they can find the strength of spirit to fight the growing trend toward apathy. When that happens, we should find no reason to doubt the continuing health of the “American Dream.”