American Dream

Thought Experiment 1: On the Relation of Art & Life

*Note that you will be performing / posting this assignment in our ALL ASSIGNMENTS site section, where you will find the “Thought Experiment I Repository.”

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As indicated both in our course syllabus and in our overview of “course requirements” (both found in the “START HERE” section of our course site), with our “thought experiment” assignments, students will reflect PERSONALLY on the ways in which the experience of the pursuit of happiness in ART (i.e., in literature/film) might relate to the student’s own personal experience (or lack of experience) with the pursuit of happiness in LIFE.

The American Dream: Alive or Dead?

In the Pursuit of Happyness film, the pursuit of happiness –The American Dream — is portrayed as very much ALIVE through the happy ending portrayed in Will Smith’s character’s successes at conforming himself to the “name of the game”: at conforming himself to the protocols of a kind of socially Darwinistic, a survival of the fittest, ethos.

But in Death of Salesman, the pursuit of happiness –The American Dream — is portrayed (more or less) as DEAD through the unhappy (i.e., tragic) ending portrayed, paradoxically, in Willy Loman’s successes at conforming himself to the “name of the game”: at conforming himself to the protocols of a kind of socially Darwinistic, a survival of the fittest, ethos.


A quick side note and/ or some food for thought: Utterly crucial to underline in red ink is that the above formulation of the American Dream — the pursuit of happiness — is only one formulation of it — namely, the pursuit of happiness in “the pursuit” that James Truslow Adams defined as the pursuit of happiness in 1931:

That the American Dream is the belief that wealth, home ownership, happy family life, and upward social mobility can and should be achieved through hard work, competition, risk-taking, and honesty. Adams was the man who first coined the phrase “American Dream” in 1931, and, as part of his definition, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” — regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

But as we reminded ourselves in other modules this semester — in modules on Plato, Aristotle, Twain, Marlvell, Fitzgerald — Adams’ definition of the pursuit of happiness (which is crystalized in his definition of “The American Dream”) is not the only definition of the pursuit of happiness in history, is not the only “dream” of happiness we find in history.


For your Thought Experiment I assignment, I would like you to draw on your own personal experience with the American Dream as Adams defines it; or draw on the personal experience of the American Dream of someone with whom you share a personal relationship…in order to answer the following question (in approximately 400 – 500 words):

The American Dream as Adams in 1931 defined it: Is it alive or dead?


Below are examples of two approaches to answering the question:

I. The American Dream is dead:

My personal experience proves to me that the American Dream is dead. My experience of it is something like Willy Loman’s experience: he worked very hard yet failed to get rich, he pursued a family life but it left him dissatisfied, and, to boot, his brother Ben advocated dishonesty as a means to financial success and got success (but he didn’t necessarily get happiness). In High School, my brother broke his butt, worked almost full-time, saved his money so that he could afford college, and so that he could eventually land an internship and possibly a well-paying job. But right now — three years after graduation — my brother is unemployed and depressed…(etc.)

II. The American Dream is alive:

My father’s personal experience proves to me that the American Dream is alive. My father lost his job at a local paper manufacturer five years ago when the corporation outsourced his job to Mexico. Many Americans would argue that this type of job outsourcing is proof that the Dream is dead because so many Americans have lost their jobs to foreign cheap labor willing to work for $2.00 a day instead of the $15.00 per hour needed to feed and clothe a family of four in the United States. It is true that millions of high-paying American jobs went overseas and that they will never come back. However, rather than throw in the towel and file for welfare like too many Americans, my dad took out a small loan and attended DuBois Community College to pursue an associate degree in HVAC technology, a skill he knew a little bit about from fixing heating and cooling problems at his outsourced job with MWV. As it turned out, Berrena’s Heating and Cooling in Huntingdon hired my dad directly from his DuBois certification program for an internship, which after a year turned into a full-time technician’s position at twice the wage he was making at the paper plant. Within two years he had repaid the government Stafford loans that he needed for college training and has saved enough to pay for my first year at Penn State Altoona. My father’s story is not unique to me family, all of whom view welfare as a last resort, not as the lifestyle it has become for too many Americans who would rather play sick than sweat an honest day’s work. My mother works two jobs—as a secretary by day and three nights a week as a waitress at the Olive Garden. While their jobs do not command six-digit salaries, their work ethic and determination will make a college degree for me possible and open new doors…(etc.)

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