What is today's American Dream?

Right now my eighth graders and I are studying the American literary movements as we work through 101 Great American PoemsLast week we started discussing Modernism and how part of that time period caused people to lose faith in the "American Dream." When I started teaching this a couple of years ago, I began stealing much of the curriculum from the textbooks I used with my juniors during student teaching: Holt's Elements of Literature, Fifth Course. As I was reflipping through it this year I came upon a question that really made me think: What is today's American Dream?

I've been trying to develop my students' abilities for sustained writing, and so we started the class with a ten-minute quick write on the prompt, and this time I wrote along with them. Afterwards we discussed it, and most of us agreed that today's American Dream is to be successful. As one student put it, there's a "scoreboard" that we're trying to put ourselves on. In America today, we want to make a name for ourselves.

We eventually began to break it down to consider what this looks like for their thirteen- and fourteen-year-old selves. One student commented that fulfilling the American dream for them involves attaining good grades, but we soon realized that good is no longer good enough. They feel like they need to have perfect grades. In the age of PowerSchool it's really easy to obsess over such things. And obsess over it they do.

But their obsession makes sense. They're currently in the midst of the high school admissions process. They're writing application essays and taking placement test courses. The pressure they feel in deciding a high school is greater than what I felt in choosing a college. Here in the Bay Area, high school admittance is cut-throat. You need to have good grades and be involved in extracurriculars and volunteer and be seemingly "perfect" in order to get in. And the world (both directly and indirectly) is telling them that going to a good high school will allow them to get great academic opportunities that will lead to getting into a great college. This college experience will give them a good career which will lead to a great life and retirement. They really think and feel this way! There's so much pressure! They desire that success.

And don't get me wrong, I have really high expectations for my students, especially this class. They have great ability, and I like to push them, but I wonder how far is too far.

Some days they're all worn out and glazed over after having stayed up late last night studying for a big test. They often obsess over meeting the right requirements instead of learning. They get frustrated in the ambiguous and the unknown. Life becomes way more about the journey than the destination. Every day I see their faces lined with stress and worry. Yes, I want them to achieve and succeed, but I also want them to enjoy the rest of their childhood. To relax and have fun.  To be silly. To understand that work can be fun and rewarding, not just stressful.

And yet, I know I get sucked into the same thing. I want to be successful. I want to make a name for myself. I want to be known. I love to work. But I can often become obsessive about it, trying to find my identity in it. My pride is ugly, and I'll go to great lengths to bolster it.

And so now I'm wondering, how do we balance it all? How do we strive to be successful and teach our kids to work hard without making it an obsession or unhealthy ideal?