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Harlon L. Dalton Horatio Alger Essay

“I have a dream!” These were the prolific words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a captivated crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Monument. The date was August 28, 1963. King invoked many ideals during his speech—freedom, equality and justice for all.

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But one theme that encompassed the entirety of his speech was the “American Dream”, a concept that has been circulating in our culture for as long as anyone can remember. It is the idea that anyone in our society, through hard work, self-reliance and determination, can make it. Dr. King is not alone. Media outlets and our favorite television shows speak about this illustrious idea—no matter who you are in American society, you can become rich as long as you “work hard.” But does this concept really work? Who created this idea of the “American Dream?”

The idea of the American Dream began when Horatio Alger, Jr., a prolific 19th century author, wrote novels that followed the inspirational adventures of impoverished young boys who grew up to become successful men. All of these characters had one thing in common: they went from rags to riches (1). The concepts of the American Dream has since become ingrained within our culture.

There are several overlooked messages about Alger’s works that are not mentioned by modern day society. The first is the content of Alger’s stories. In his books, Alger discusses how children escape from poverty, but he never says they become wealthy. In reality, his novels describe the boys living a “comfortable” lifestyle, meaning they became part of the middle class (2). They never become extraordinarily wealthy, something the modern version of the American Dream emphasizes.

The second message that is often overlooked is the racial disparities in American society. The American Dream has often been used as a denial of racism in our culture, emphasizing that anyone can garner great wealth through determination and courage alone. Throughout most of our country’s history and even into our present day, this has not been the case. Racism and sexism still play a role in hiring decisions and what economic class you ultimately belong to (3).

The term “American Dream” was finally coined by author James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America (1931). According to Adams, the American Dream is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." It is this definition that embodies Dr. King’s message of racial equality and equal opportunity for all.

Despite this, the “rags to riches” concept has been heavily criticized, with critics often arguing that only the most exceptional and lucky people can travel this road. In 2003, filmmaker Michael Moore remarked, “So, here's my question: after fleecing the American public and destroying the American dream for most working people, how is it that, instead of being drawn and quartered and hung at dawn at the city gates, the rich got a big wet kiss from Congress in the form of a record tax break, and no one says a word? How can that be? I think it's because we're still addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug. Despite all the damage and all the evidence to the contrary, the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all (4).”

American economist and political writer Thomas Sowell, however, disagrees with Moore. According to Sowell, “Taxpayers whose incomes were in the bottom 20 percent in 1996 had a 91 percent increase in incomes by 2005. Meanwhile, taxpayers in the top one-hundredth of one percent -- "the rich" or "superrich" if you believe politicians and the media -- had their incomes drop by 26 percent over those very same years. The University of Michigan Panel Survey on Income Dynamics showed that, among people who were in the bottom 20 percent income bracket in 1975, only 5 percent were still in that category in 1991. Nearly six times as many of them were now in the top 20 percent. (5)”

Not everyone is convinced. Harlon L. Dalton, a Professor of Law at Yale University, cites numerous flaws in the “American Dream.” According to Dalton, not only is the myth fallacious, but it is socially destructive. “There are lots of Black folk who subscribe to the Alger myth and at the same time understand it to be deeply false. They live with the dissonance between myth and reality because both are helpful and healthful in dealing with ‘the adverse events of life.’ Many Whites, however, have a strong interest in resolving the dissonance in favor of the myth. Far from needing to be on guard against racial ‘threat[s] or challenge[s],’ they would just as soon put the ugliness of racism out of mind. For them, the Horatio Alger myth provides them the opportunity to do just that. (6)”

Americans face a grim reality if the “American Dream” is to be believed. While there is almost negligible growth for the bottom half of our country, the top 1 percent of American society has seen their incomes double. According to Gregory Mantsios, director of working education at CUNY, “The top 20 percent of the American population hold 85 percent of the total household wealth in the country—a statistic that does not give much hope to the remaining 80 percent. The poor are becoming poorer and owe more money. The average working class owed approximately $500 in 1985. Today it is $8,000. A total of fourteen percent of Americans live below the poverty line” ($7,992 for individuals and $16,209 for a family of four.) (7)

We can do better than this. Instead of relying on erroneous notions about what it takes to succeed in society (and blaming the poor when they don’t happen to “make it”), we can do more. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, we can volunteer our time at charities, soup kitchens and community organizations. We can donate money. How many “hard working” Americans lost their jobs and their homes during this recession? How many children will have to sleep on the streets, not knowing when they will receive their next meal? Unfortunately, the “American Dream” won’t help this child now, nor will it help the unemployed person about to lose his or her home. It won’t help the ex-convict who is looking for a second chance (see: Networking, Economics and the Law: Stigma, Recidivism and Second Chances.) It’s been over seventy years since Adams’ book was released. Are Americans really better off now?

It will take all of us to ensure that America is a more prosperous country once we emerge from this recession. A fervent belief that the “American Dream” will help all Americans achieve financial independence just won’t do.

*Andrew Bruskin is a contributing editor for All About Business, an organization geared towards economic empowerment and community advocacy throughout the United States. He was the elected president of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), a national honor society comprised of 230 chapters in all 50 states of the U.S. with over 650,000 members. Currently attending the College of William and Mary School of Law, Andrew is a contributing editor for the Constitutional Law Society and the founder and co-president of the Northeast Legal Society. He can be reached at Andrew.Bruskin@gmail.com


1) http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0803314.html
2) Huber, Richard. The American Idea of Success, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
3) Dalton, Harlon L. Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. 1995. 16 Apr 2008.
4) http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/9723
5) http://townhall.com/Columnists/ThomasSowell/2008/01/23/dangerous_demagog...
6) Dalton, Harlon L. Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. 1995. 16 Apr 2008.
7) Mantsios, Gregory. "Class in America: Myths and Realities." Rereading America. Eds.

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Example Argument Essay #2


Assignment: Using evidence from the essays in your textbook, make an argument concerning the potential for Americans to achieve success (“the American Dream”) through education.

The Alger Myth

The Horatio Alger myth is one of the oldest myths in the history of the United States of America. Horatio Alger was a 19th century author who wrote short stories that all had the same universal theme: a young man rising from a poor childhood to become a successful adult. Alger’s stories were enormously popular during his time and continue to be so today with the term “Alger Myth” become a household saying. The popularity of Alger’s stories is not surprising when one considers America has consistently pushed the notion that anyone can achieve success if they work hard. Every child in America is told at some point in their life that they can be anything they want to be. This myth is as much a part of American culture as apple pie or baseball.

The “Alger Myth” provides hope for everyone who isn’t raised in a wealthy environment. [Logical transition needed here such as “Yet,”] The poverty level in America is absurdly high and produces a large group of children who grow up in an environment where everybody is struggling to get by on a day to day basis. These children have no actual tangible evidence that somebody from their neighborhood can achieve the type of success they dream of. The only hope they have comes from the “Alger Myth” or other such fables that describe rags to riches stories. The “Alger Myth” is thus a useful tool for the American upper-class, in the sense that it gives the lower-class a hope for their future and in the process helps to prevent any attempt by the lower-class to overthrow the current economic system, which produces this huge disparity between the rich and poor. [Good. This effectively politicizes and enlarges the issue.] This would almost be an acceptable practice if the “Alger Myth” was true and everyone did have a chance to succeed regardless of race, sex, or affluence. [Again, emphasize the contrast with a transition: “But,” ] The “Alger Myth”, like many popular American myths, is in fact a fallacy as the facts simply show there is no evidence to support an equal playing field for every American.

The poverty level is simply too high for the “Alger Myth” to be anything other than a fairytale. Gregory Mantsios provides many statistics to support this including the fact that “a total of 14 percent of the American population – that is, one of every seven – live below the government’s official poverty line (calculated in 1996 at $7,992 for an individual and $16,209 for a family of four)” (Rereading America 321). Those in favor of the “Alger Myth” would tell these people that if they worked harder they would eventually achieve the success they desire. That type of logic is quite frankly asinine, as many of the people below the poverty level are working two or three jobs and doing everything they possibly can to provide for themselves and their family. They work just as hard if not harder than anybody in the upper-class and are reduced to living in poor conditions with little to no chance of every escaping the situation they are in. These people work themselves to death and instead of attaining the American dream, they are told to work even harder, while they see nepotism promote less qualified and lazier employees into the position they had worked so hard to achieve. Mantsios goes on to point out the sad reality that “the wealthiest 20 percent of the American population holds 85 percent of the total household wealth in the country” (Rereading America 320). There simply isn’t any evidence to support that working hard will lead to upward mobility when there is only 15 percent of the wealth left for 80 percent of the country. [Good pacing in gradually submitting data to the contrary.]

The “Alger Myth” is even more of a fallacy if you are non-white or a woman. Mantsios provides the statistics that back this up. His statistics show that the chance of being poor in America is “one in eleven for white men and women, one in four for white female head of households, one in three for Hispanic men and women, one in two for Hispanic female head of households, one of three for black men and women, and one in two for black female head of households” (Rereading America 333). The “Alger Myth” sounds great if you are an affluent white male. If you are anything else, the “Alger Myth” may sound great but it simply isn’t grounded in reality.

Harlon L. Dalton, who is one of the biggest opponents of the “Alger Myth,” offers up the typical response from proponents of the “Alger Myth” when given these numbers: “All it takes to make it in America is initiative, hard work, persistence, and pluck. After all, just look at Colin Powell” (Rereading America 315). The thought process is obviously that if Colin Powell can make it, so can anyone else, but that simply isn’t true. Colin Powell is the exception, not the rule. There is obviously going to be a group of people from the lower class and minorities in powerful positions. Colin Powell gives the upper-class their token minority that they can point to whenever somebody questions the economic system that oppresses those that aren’t white and born into affluence. [Effective level of assertion here.] The twenty percent controlling all the money in America didn’t get where they are today because they were unintelligent. They are obviously very intelligent and the fact that they put people like Colin Powell in power proves their intelligence. Unfortunately it doesn’t prove that the “Alger Myth” is the truth, but it does placate some opponents of the “Alger Myth” and in the process helps prevent the lower-class from ever reaching their dreams. [Good – You present rationales as to why these strategies are used.]

At first glance, Stephen Cruz would seem like the poster boy for the “Alger Myth.” His parents came to America from Mexico and group up well below the poverty level. Cruz didn’t give up however and worked hard to better his position in life. He went to college and got into the business world. Cruz quickly rose to a position of prominence in every company he worked at, but began to see he wasn’t being treated the same as people who were supposedly his equals: “My office was glass-enclosed, while all the other offices were enclosed so you couldn’t see into them. I was the visible man” (Rereading America 336). Cruz was treated similar to Powell in the sense that he was the token minority. He began to question this himself: “I started asking: Why weren’t we hiring more minorities? I realized I was the only one in a management position” (Rereading America 336). Stephen Cruz seemed to be the perfect case of the “Alger Myth” working to perfection with a poor minority rising to the level of management in a major company. However, he soon found out that even if a minority somehow did accomplish their goals and obtain their dream job, they were still treated differently. Cruz became increasing dissatisfied with this double standard and quit the business world to become a small farmer. Cruz provesthat even the exceptions to the “Alger Myth” that are given token jobs to quiet the masses aren’t really given the same opportunity to succeed as those already in the upper-class. [Good – you explain the value of your Cruz example.]

The majority of Americans believe in the “Alger Myth” because quite frankly the “Alger Myth” is what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution promised. The United States of America was supposed to be a country where every man and woman was treated equally. Regrettably the “Alger Myth” is nothing more than a false myth that in many ways does more harm to the lower-class than good.

Instructor end comment:

[Outstanding mixture of research and narrative argumentation. Very good (and consistent) narrative set ups, signifiers, and closings. **Side note: As Mantsios and Dalton point out, it’s good to have faith, but that faith should not be so blind, uninformed and unaware. I’m personally baffled how you can put a flashlight on the numbers and strategies used, yet all some people see is a beautiful forest – and no trees.]

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