“We were once an aspirational society.” These words were spoken at the table during a national board of directors meeting of an organization upon which I serve. We were deep in a discussion about the value of education to society and what it means to our country’s future, and the themes of aspiration, ambition, desire and drive to succeed were elements of the discussion.
I blanched when I heard those words. “Once?” Have we drifted too far from the foundational elements of our history where the American Dream was growing up knowing anyone had the right to succeed; knowing that if one worked hard, stayed focused and was fueled by ambition, climbing the ladder of success was within the grasp of everyman? My fear is that absent a significant change in our national dialogue we might very well fall into the abyss, where perceptions become reality and new perceptions are ones filled with doubt and dependency instead of an “anything is possible” mentality.
We can be both “once” and again aspirational. Perhaps the growth of government programs after the 1960s did more to create a cycle of dependency than it did a cycle of progress and ambition. We did need government programs to assist in building pathways to success, access to stairways up the economic ladders. Instead, however, many of these programs created an over-reliance on government largess, serving to depress rather than build, hinder rather than advance and stagnate dreams rather than stimulate opportunities. Gov. Jeb Bush, in his address to the Detroit Economic Club, raised issues that must be addressed. Are we too dependent upon government and has it hindered as much as it has served?
There are proper and useful roles for government programs, but instead of a clear and thoughtful evaluation of effectiveness and value added qualities, we have seen a decade’s long slide into government dependency. Is there not value in a program-by-program analysis of purpose and effect? Do these programs serve to lift up human possibilities or diminish our ambitions? Bush’s assertion that over time we have been “recklessly degrading the value of work” can also be said of aspiration and ambition.
America has always been an aspirational nation. From the time of George Washington and passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which set aside land in every township dedicated to the provision of schools and educational opportunities, to the time of Lincoln and passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, which once again set aside land and money to create institutions of higher learning, we have been a culture focused on building access to opportunities. As a nation we sought to create pathways for citizens to better themselves through education, not just by the accumulation of knowledge, but also by absorbing the qualities of a better citizenry that come from exposure to values, awareness of common mores, and by expanding the individual’s ability to become a greater contributor to the larger society. As a child I was taught that education was a pathway to success – that through learning I could become what I dreamed possible – that these paths were open to all, no matter how poor, no matter which station in life. Education mattered then and it matters now.
As a nation we continued the aspirational path when the doors of higher education became available for the hundreds of thousands eligible for the GI Bill after WWII, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college. Prior to WWII even graduating from high school was not so common, but the world had changed and so had our country. Post WWII saw a heightening of aspiration and from then to now, millions have pursued career paths that involved learning beyond high school, whether it be college or trades, and the foundation of our more modern America was laid.
During the tumultuous 60s the doors to success were fully opened to all in our country, and even more of us who had always dreamed of learning opportunities found it possible to chase those dreams. During these past 50-plus years, we have seen an expansion of opportunities that is unprecedented in history, where anyone, no matter your origin in life, can find a way to turn dreams into reality and have access to an education.
Yet, some have begun to think of our country as “once” being aspirational. I assert we remain an aspirational society. I serve as president of an association of 31 colleges and universities. These institutions exist, in part, due to the desires of individuals and families to grow, to become better, to expand both with the knowledge and the capacity to advance, to truly climb the ladder of success.
As a state and as a society, we need to reexamine our notions about the role of higher education and also the roles of our colleges and universities. The institutions of higher learning across our great country are providing pathways to opportunities, so our citizens can have the potential to become flourishing citizens, contributing to the success of their families, and planting the seeds of aspiration for those who might think that it cannot be done. Dreams of success are contagious. Higher education is the ground where fertile dreams can be fulfilled and aspirations can become realities.
Yes, we still are an aspirational society. Parents still dream for their children and increasingly parents themselves are going back to school. More than a quarter of those attending my 31 institutions are over the age of 25 and this is one of most rapidly growing demographic sectors of education. Access to success can be a lifelong pursuit, but the seeds remain in the dreams of our young, with a stimulation of both desire and ambition to succeed. We must do better!
Ed H. Moore, President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, writes and lives in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.