By Michelle Koyanagi
When sociology students at American University study the American Dream, they find out there’s a lot more to understand than the individual success stories they hear about on the news.
AU’s sociology professors fill their students with data and statistics on groups of people in the U.S. teaching them about the problems plaguing the American Dream and instilling them with the importance of social activism.
“A lot of them have come from very privileged backgrounds that they weren’t privy to much social inequality, said Dr. Andrea Malkin Brenner, a sociology professor in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “For example, I don’t think they necessarily realize the inequality in public education in the U.S.”
“That’s probably the unit that wows them the most in terms of how much they didn’t know,” said Brenner.
Sociology students at AU can expect to learn about the American Dream in courses such as SOCY-100 as well as many other intro-level sociology courses offered at American University.
“We talk about it in terms of capitalism and the Protestant ethic,” said Brenner. “It comes with the units on social class stratification and on religion.”
But not all professors agree with the sociology textbooks when it comes to the American Dream.
“I don’t really think that’s the way the American Dream should necessarily be taught or what people may think about the American Dream today,” said Brenner. “The American population and certainly sociologists talk about people’s concept of the American Dream relating to financial security.”
Poverty in the U.S. is one of the topics discussed when studying the American Dream, according to sociology professors at AU.
In 2008, nearly 40 million people in the U.S. (about 13 percent) lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The American Dream is about the concept of upward mobility in America,” said Dr. Chenyang Xiao, a sociology professor at AU who currently teaches a course on social research.
Upward mobility is tied into an individual’s income-level, according to Xiao.
“Unlike in some places where the notion of nobility is rooted in class status, in America, it is rooted in income status,” said Xiao.
One sociology professor at AU doesn’t tell her students at all what the American Dream is.
“I don’t teach my students, this is the American Dream—a, b, and c,” said Dr. Bette Dickerson Brenner, a sociology professor at AU who has served as Chair of AU’s Department of Sociology. “Rather, I ask them what does the American Dream mean to you and what does it consist of?”
For many students that’s an easy question. Students say that the American Dream is about having a job and a home, according to Dickerson.
“Students are more aware of what makes up the American Dream,” said Dickerson. “The complicated part is asking who has it, who doesn’t, why do some have it, and why do others not have it?”
These questions are addressed when sociology students critically analyze the data around issues of equity and access.
“The real issue is about whether or not the American Dream is accessible to everybody,” said Dickerson. “Given the Dream, what are your chances of attaining it?”
From a sociologist’s perspective, the chance is not equal.
“Those in the working class or have low income do not have an equal chance for individual prosperity,” said Xiao. “The statistics are not very optimistic.”
The share of household income of the top 20 percent of households increased from 44.1 percent in 1980 to 50.4 percent by 2005, with the share of the bottom 20 percent decreasing from 4.2 percent to 3.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Analyzing data and statistics means looking at groups of the population.
“We don’t look at individual success stories,” said Xiao. “Data on groups of people reveal more about an individual’s chance for success.”
However, students aren’t always able to grasp the idea of groups.
“Something I have to remind my students, the findings we have based on statistics are talking about segments of the population, it’s not about the individual,” said Dickerson. “We’re not talking about the rare exceptions.”
Research shows that characteristics such as gender, race, region, religion, and family background can affect a person’s likelihood of success according to Dickerson.
“By and large, an individual is predetermined,” said Xiao. “If you are born into a working class family, if your parents are working class, chances are you will grow up to be working class as well.”
But no one group is victimized and no one trait is the sole determining factor of who gets the American Dream and who doesn’t.
“It’s a variety of traits of an individual that determine who gets the American Dream,” said Dickerson. “Even if you define yourself in a group that’s seen as not privileged that’s no indication that you won’t achieve the American Dream.”
Sociology students at AU who study the American Dream are taught to critically analyze the concept.
“All of our sociology classes and certainly our American Society class talks from the social problems perspective,” said Brenner. “I would agree that sociology takes a very critical look at the American Dream.”
This critical look at the American Dream is grounded in theory and data.
“It’s not just a personal opinion of a professor,” said Dickerson.
Developing this understanding of the American Dream for sociology students at AU comes gradually.
“It’s the sharing of empirical information by professors over a course of time that leads to students understanding that many do not have much of a chance at achieving the American Dream,” said Dickerson.
The next question professors often get is, “Well, what can we do about it?”
“When my students learn about how things are, most of them say, ‘no we don’t want it that way,’” said Dickerson. “We learn together and then we are focused on social justice and social change.”
This semester, Professor Dickerson sent her students out to attend events in the city.
“I ask them things like what did they find disturbing and what did they find empowering?” said Dickerson. “It opened their eyes to a lot of new ideas.”
Professor Brenner teaches her courses from an activist perspective.
“A great number of AU students who end up in sociology want to have an impact,” said Brenner. “Feeling very small and the problems very large, they wonder, ‘how can I take a step forward to make some changes?’”