Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Complicating College Students' Conception of the American Dream through Community Service Learning

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Complicating College Students' Conception of the American Dream through Community Service Learning

Article excerpt

Hochschild (1995) has defined the American Dream as "the promise that all Americans have a reasonable chance to achieve success as they define it--material or otherwise--through their own efforts" (p. 6). A belief in this promise is one of the most deeply held beliefs in American culture regardless of ethnicity, class status, or geography (Bullock & Lott, 2001; Flanagan & Tucker, 1999; Kluegel & Smith, 1986). In their classic study of Americans' beliefs about inequality, Kluegel and Smith found that an astounding 90% of Americans believed their own opportunities for economic success to be equal to or better than the average American. More recently, Scott and Leonhardt (2005) found that 75% of Americans believed (incorrectly) that the chances of moving up in class status have risen over the past 30 years. Along similar lines, 71% of Americans surveyed for the 2006 World Values Survey expressed their belief that anyone can escape poverty if he or she works hard enough (Gudrais, 2008). In short, the American Dream is one of the (if not the) most firmly entrenched memes in American culture.

Faith in America's opportunity structure is particularly strong among contemporary emerging adults (Brooks, 2001; Seider, 2008a; Twenge, 2006). As Levine and Cureton (1998) noted in their study of the millennial generation, "No generation has wanted to believe in the American Dream more than current undergraduates" (p. 135). Such an optimistic outlook has numerous benefits; however, young adults who express confidence in the availability of personal opportunity in the United States are less likely to recognize structural and societal barriers to economic success (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2009; Howard, 2008). They are also less likely to conceive of themselves as having a role to play in addressing these barriers (Damon, 2008; Seider, 2008b). In short, emerging adults who believe all Americans have unfettered access to the American Dream have little reason to conceive of themselves as responsible for the wellbeing of struggling fellow Americans.

The SERVE Program (1) at Ignatius University seeks to foster in its participants just such a sense of responsibility for fellow citizens. Ignatius University is a competitive Catholic university in a large American city. The SERVE Program is a service-learning program that began in 1970 as a joint venture between Ignatius University's philosophy and theology departments. According to the Program's Web site:

   The mission of the SERVE Program is to educate
   our students about social injustice by
   putting them into direct contact with marginalized
   communities and social change organizations
   and by encouraging discussion on classic
   and contemporary works of philosophy and
   theology. Our goal is to foster critical consciousness
   and enable students to question
   conventional wisdom and learn how to work
   for a just society.

The academic component of the SERVE Program is a year-long course in philosophy and theology entitled 'Individual and Social Responsibility.' Students meet twice a week for lecture and participate in a weekly discussion section. While the content of the course varies somewhat across the 12 philosophy and theology faculty members who teach in the SERVE program, typical readings include works by Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Foucault, Freire, Malcolm X, Shipler, and Kozol. A SERVE syllabus from the 2008-09 academic year is available as Appendix A.

In addition to this academic course, all Ignatius University students enrolled in the SERVE Program choose a community service project from a menu of more than 50 choices that include tutoring urban elementary school students, volunteering at a suicide hotline, working in an emergency room, helping low-income families apply for affordable housing, and tutoring prison inmates working toward their GEDs. Students devote 10 hours a week to their respective placements for the entire academic year. …

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