5 Criticisms on the Concept of Exceptionalism and the American Dream
Exceptionalism is the idea that an individual or community is superior to another because that individual or community is special and gifted with hidden talent.
The American Dream is the notion that everyone has the capacity to achieve wealth and success independent of help and through work ethic alone.
Both these notions can be wrong, dangerous, and misleading. Not everyone is meant to thrive in a highly competitive, pressurized capitalist society. The American Dream is not for everyone and is in many ways, harmful. They can convey a damaging misperception to uninformed people by deluding them into believing they are capable of achieving things they are actually not. It paints a false picture of what an ideal person should be, penalizing and demeaning those who cannot achieve this ideal.
The following essay highlights five reasons challenging the notion of exceptionalism and the American Dream. The ten arguments will serve to debunk this often illogical and emotion-based philosophy in favor of an existential, attainable, and reality-based approach to life
The Five Arguments
Ability Varies and is Often Predetermined at Birth
Perhaps the greatest argument against the American Dream is that there is no even playing field. It erroneously assumes that everyone is somehow capable of achieving some great things with nothing more than talent and work ethic. This causes people to listen to bring undue stress and suffering onto themselves by listening to misguided advice underachieve are somehow defective failures and mistakes.
Life is a race where everyone starts on a different starting line. Some ahead of others. Everyone's abilities, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, physical, and mental characteristics are innately different. Much of a person's physical and mental abilities is predetermined at birth. Some people are taller than others. Some people are more attractive than others Some people are athletically gifted. Some people are musically gifted. Some people have poor hand-eye coordination. Some people are poor listeners. Some people are more emotionally resilient to stress. Some people are brought up in an authoritarian, strict household. Others are given everything they want.
Not everyone is meant to graduate from college or even high school. Not everyone can build a military career. Not everyone has the strength and fitness to pursue a physically demanding profession. Not everyone has the resolve, intelligence, and work ethic to be self-employed. Not everyone has the analytical ability to become a mathematician, engineer, or scientist.
In short, there are hundreds, if not thousands of factors, both within and without a person's control that largely determine whether or not she is capable of achieving success according to the arbitrary standards set by the American Dream.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But a significant step towards addressing this persistent problem is not to set an arbitrary standard that not everyone can meet in a realistic time-frame, but to accept that there are innate, often unchangeable differences in abilities in every human being. That differences exist and isn't something to be ignored. That different approaches must be applied to different groups and individuals. That not everyone is meant for amazing and special destiny. Then society and individual can work accordingly around them to accommodate, acknowledge, accept, and work around these differences.
It is not a comprehensive solution to all of a society's problems, but is a far more reality-based one than the misleading notion that anyone can be anyone they want.
There will Always be Deviants
Society, institutions, and individuals all seek to reward those who play by the rules and meet or exceed these artificial standards. Those who cannot perform to the standards or struggle to fit in, for any number of reasons are labeled as deviants, losers, misfits, or otherwise, substandard performers. This too, causes unnecessary suffering and strife among individuals and communities.
Though not every society has resources in place to help such deviant individuals, every society should give that individual the choice to leave that society and join another that will accept him. The difference between an unfair society and a dictatorial society is that an unfair society gives an individual a choice to leave. The tyrannical society will incarcerate, torture, or kill not only that individual but anyone else associated with that person. And maintain an atmosphere of fear and mistrust.
As with the first argument not everyone is capable of the level of success a society demands, not everyone is meant to fit into the community he or she is born in. In many cases, deviants are forced into silence through either bullying, ostracization, intimidation, or even violence. Such a society is one that is hostile to open dialogue and encourages mob mentality and intimidation. It's a climate that is non-conducive to debate, discussion, and informed decisions based on facts.
There isn't a catch-all solution to everything. But as with the first argument, a major step towards addressing the problem of underachievers, deviants, and other individuals who somehow fall short of that society's standards is to accept that these differences are real and permanent. Acting like they are somehow wrong, shameful, and abhorrent is not going to make the problem go away. Government, education, law enforcement, military, organized religion, pharmaceutics, and other institutions are poorly equipped to deal with these problems.
More school and education are not the solution
School and education continue to fail the majority of people not only by not equipping them with skills needed to solve society's problems, they produce non-thinking, conformist people who do not question the bad decisions made by an incompetent government. They produce assembly workers designed to keep the industrial machine running and never question the system. If this applies to you, then your education has failed you.
The whole point of school, teachers, and education is threefold. One is to identify a student's strengths and weaknesses in order to find the profession he is best suited for. The second is to produce responsible adults capable of critiquing, debating, and questioning the society around him in order to solve problems. The third objective is to produce moral, ethical, and conscientious people. If school, teachers, and education fail to do one or more of these 3 things, they have failed their jobs and produced worthless people incapable of contributing to and solving society's problems.
But often times, education has been all about profit and manipulating statistics in order to ignore and downplay problems. It is a parasitic entity that elects to keep itself in power as an industry by lobbying for more and more taxes at the expense of your very own children's livelihoods.
A healthy and responsible society has informed and critically thinking citizenry elects its leaders based on facts, debates, and empirical data. Its leaders represent the interests of an informed citizenry capable of separating fact from emotion, asking hard questions about real world problems of society, and engaging in difficult debates necessary to solve society's problems. A society of critically thinking, financially responsible, rational, logical, and informed citizens who constantly scrutinize and ask hard questions can never be tyrannized. A free society will defend its rights to the death rather than submit to tyranny.
An unhealthy, irresponsible consumerist society elects its leaders based on feelings, greed, emotion, and bias. This society has an uninformed, financially irresponsible. lazy population that does not ask hard, controversial questions. It has tyrannical, conformist leaders because the population is easily intimidated and manipulated into turning on each other and silencing any dissidents through violence or threat of it. Leaders in this kind of dysfunctional society find themselves easy to stay in power because they wield immense power and no accountability. They can constantly promise people nice things and manipulate the media into telling people what they want to hear instead of hard truths they do not want to. People are extremely dependent on government for all aspects of life in this society and will gladly sacrifice freedom for the illusion of security and entertainment. The education industry is one the biggest offenders, in this regard. The concept of exceptionalism and the American Dream eventually created this very society because both ideas are based on emotion and hearsay instead of cold, hard facts.
Public, classroom-based education where 1 teacher instructs as many as 60 students imposes unrealistic, unattainable goals on both student and teacher. It is the dysfunctional byproduct of a sick and lazy society that wants a quick solution to very difficult, multivariable problems.
The most important, unavoidable truth of education is that all abilities are inherently different and decided at an early age. Deciding whether or not to accept this fact is not an option.
Think about this hypothetical example- there's a high teacher in charge of instructing up to 60 students. He must pass at least 42 students in 2 semesters or else he will come under scrutiny from the principal for failing too many students. But as the semester drags on, it is evident that far fewer than 42 of students can master the material. This means, the teacher will have to cut corners and pass students who do not deserve to graduate, or risk disciplinary action from his higher-ups for failing to meet the minimum quota.
For a parent to raise just 1 child from birth to adulthood, equipping him with skills needed to become a functioning adult, and identifying his strengths and weakness to find the most appropriate career for him, is an enormous financial and emotional commitment. This process can take longer shorter, depending on how fast he learns, how he is taught, how mature he is, and how he is commitment to self-improvement. Adding a second child magnifies the problem twofold. Having three, four, five, or more children even further taxes and limits the parent's financial ability and commitment to prepare all those children for adulthood. At some point, even the most committed parents are not going to be up to the task.
So, if you are not up to the challenge of properly equipping and training your own child to be an adult, how can you expect this stranger known as the teacher to do it? Not only that, but to force this stranger to instruct 50-60 other children with wildly varying abilities from your own child? And expect this teacher to prepare all these children for the workforce or college using a single fixed, curriculum that does not and cannot account for a student's wildly varying abilities?
Often to avoid the complaints of student, parents, and principals and under pressure to meet the school's graduation quotas, the teacher will lie, gloss over, and pass students who do not deserve to graduate. Conversely, the school will invariably end up failing students who could've graduated with more time and investment. All while telling students that they live in a society that is somehow better and superior to other societies or that they themselves have some amazing talent that will allow them to achieve anything in life. It's the equivalent of encouraging a tone-deaf student that he is a failure for his inability to pursue a music-related career or pushing a student with a serious heart condition into a profession that requires a high level of physical activity that could exacerbate his condition.
Just because tell students that everyone is somehow gifted and capable of material success with work ethic alone, does not mean they are capable of such. Many students do not have the academic ability to go to college or even to graduate from high school. And there should be absolutely no stigma for such.
Once again, reality wins out in the end. Imposing fake, arbitrary standards when everybody's ability varies does more damage than it does good. We have to be willing to tell people the truth, even if it means telling some that they are less capable of success. Education has an obligation to truth.
Success and accomplishment are subjective
What is success? Seeing how every human's abilities are so vastly different, what counts as success? Just what makes a person exceptional?
For a person of exceptionally low academic ability, elementary school is a challenge to complete. If such a person graduated from high school, it is a significant achievement. For the average person, high school graduation is something nearly everyone of average academic ability can graduate with occasional challenging courses here and there. For the average person, college classes are extremely challenging. If a wheelchair bound child with a disabled lower body learned to walk, it is a milestone. In short, standard is different from all humans across the board. Some humans have a greater capacity for self-sacrifice and kindness. Other humans have greater pain tolerance. Still other humans are emotionally fragile and easily wounded by what others would deem a minor, insignificant annoyance.
As with the first 3 arguments, there are hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of variables within and beyond a person's control that determine to what extent he can succeed. So how can we create a fake standard that means something totally different to 2 people?
The American Dream and exceptionalism say every human has some amazing hidden talent that will allow them to succeed with nothing but work ethic and diligence alone. That isn't the case. Person A require more time, outside help, and resources to accomplish what Person B accomplishes effortlessly.
As much as we don't want to admit, there has to be a loser if there must be a winner. In a competitive class of 60 students, there has to be a student at the bottom so there can be that shining golden hero at the top- the one that everyone wants to be associated with. There is nothing inherently bad or immoral for any human being to be of lower ability to his neighbor. We can't penalize someone for failing to do something he was never capable of from the start. Once again, exceptionalism and the American Dream is not rooted in reality: what you consider success is different from what another person considers success.
Much human suffering results from inability to accept reality
By nature, humans are immoral, prejudiced, rebellious, self-loving, disobedient, cowardly, and violent animals. We value others who have more than us, who can get us something we cannot get ourselves. We want to be with those who are like us and hate those who are different from us. We fear and hate what we don't comprehend. By nature, humans hate those inferior to us and today up to those superior to us. We are willing to lie, cheat steal, and disadvantage others and their children so that us or our children can get ahead in life. If there was a definite argument that exceptionalism does more harm than good, then this is it.
But more than anything, humans suffer from an inability to accept reality unless it suits our needs. We let ourselves be led astray by misguided emotions. It overpowers our ability to make decisions based on reason, facts, and logic. This causes the majority of our unnecessary suffering. We would rather believe we are capable of fantastic things we are not capable of than admit we aren't as great as we believe and that not everyone is destined for something great.
So, is there an ultimate answer to all our problems brought about by exceptionalism and the American Dream's misguided belief that everyone is capable of something great due to some amazing, hidden talent and work ethic?
The first and most important step to addressing the multivariable problems of society is a reality-based approach where we stop telling people that they can succeed with work ethic and effort alone. This means getting rid of fake standards that not everybody is capable of meeting.
Second, we have to stop telling people they're special, gifted, exceptional, and talented. Most humans are not. Billions of humans who came before us were untalented, unremarkable people who left with no trace. Billions of humans who come after us will also be untalented, unremarkable individuals. Most humans will live and die without a trace they were ever there. Most of us are not destined for some amazing grand plan that God and the universe has for us. There is nothing immoral or wrong about being an unremarkable and ordinary person. We have to get rid of this inane, childish, and compulsive desire to be larger and better than life.
Third, we all have an obligation to tell the truth. We need to completely get rid of our wishful, childlike fantasies that everyone has an extraordinary, special gift in favor of a harsher, but reality-based approach to life.
Fourth, we have to get rid of the notion that there is something inherently immoral and wrong for someone to be underachieving. Most humans are ordinary and unremarkable people from birth to death. This notion causes a great deal of unnecessary suffering as people delude themselves into accomplishing things that they are not capable of or become jealous of or contemptuous of others who achieve more or less than they do.
Fifth, we have to encourage people to keep asking hard questions and debating to address and solve real world problems. A society where open discussion about hard, controversial topics is encouraged builds a healthy, wholesome society. A society that doesn't ask questions to challenge the status quo is a society that is easily susceptible to group-think, tyranny, fear, bias, and mob mentality over reality and truth. A society that asks questions constantly challenges the status quo. It isn't easily swayed in a certain direction because one person or a group of people say XYZ is the way things are and that anyone who doesn't do things in that way are somehow dangerous, stupid, deluded, and must be punished.