Editor's note: The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, and at its heart is the desire for prosperity and success. But the American Dream is changing. The Aiken Standard looks at why that is in a four-part series starting today.
For the past 60 years or more, the American Dream has endured as a familiar part of the language – the kind that finds it way into the dictionary.
In post World War II, many people went to college on the GI bill, and others out of high school could obtain factory jobs and raise a family. The Dream promised a good home, a car and a successful family.
Yet for most women, jobs were restrictive – secretary, teacher, nurse. For black citizens, they had virtually no shot; the Dream didn't exist for them. In the 21st century, millions of women and black people can say they made it through education and perseverance.
Still, poverty endures in 2013 for millions more Americans, both white and black. Some 11 million Hispanics are undocumented and live in a shadow world to avoid arrest and deportation. Escaping the realities of such poverty and limited education can be arduous. Many jobs today require far more skills, and fierce competition emerges more and more.
In terms of education, the American Dream offers no simplistic definition; it is messy and elusive and yet attainable for many reasons and circumstances.
L.L. Willis has spent his life in Graniteville, where in 1952 he began a 35-year career as a teacher and administrator. Others spent their lives in Graniteville, too, staying at home and working in the mills in the Valley and Augusta. The Graniteville Company was supportive of the schools and its own employees, Willis said, offering scholarships and other assistance.
“We strove to keep kids in school,” he said. “Some thought the mill was the only way to make a living for their families. As we have moved toward specialization since then, there are more demands on people now.”
Sharon Rodgers, the United Way of Aiken County president, began her career at the Graniteville Company – later Avondale – as a staff attorney and later was appointed as the general counsel. People could work at the mills for 35, even 40 years, she said, earning a good working wage and benefits.
“The American Dream is more difficult for that middle level,” Rodgers said. “Education is more and more important to get the jobs that can provide a living wage.”
Dr. Bob Botsch has been a USC Aiken political science professor for the past 35 years. For many Americans, post-World War II did provide many advantages. He recalls the college scholarships and loans that were available to him more than 20 years after World War II. College tuition, as well, was affordable for many families and students.
Today, Botsch tells his students, “Don't let your parents tell you they had it tougher. It's not true anymore.”
An entire generation went to college on the GI Bill, leading to the greatest level of prosperity in American history, he said. On top of that, when he started teaching at the university, Botsch said the state was providing 75 percent of the cost for higher education. Now that support has fallen to 10 percent, even as more educational opportunities are needed.
As a result, they have to seek a balance to give their education goals an attention that's essential.
“We certainly need to have more citizens who are technologically competent,” Botsch said. “But there will be major changes in technology in the next 20 years, and that will mean retraining. It's more important that the liberal arts can provide a good college degree.”
A college education in the 1950s and '60s virtually assured a person the opportunity of a well-paying job, said Dr. John Bradley, a former Aiken County Board of Education chairman. Others who worked in a store selling a product could spent 30 years there and expect some stability of life. Today the opportunities don't come as easily, Bradley said, and something beyond good grades is needed.
“A lot of marginal people without a lot of eduction once could drop out of school and work in factories,” he said. “Technology has replaced a lot of it. With training for jobs like plumbing and electrical work, people can do well.”
Greg Rogers, Aiken Technical College's dean of general education, agrees with others on the growing emphasis on technology and the foundations of math and science. Virtually all industrial jobs in past generations that didn't require those skills have all but disappeared.
In the past 15 years, ATC has added programs such as radiation technology and is expanding its coursework for the nuclear workforce. From two health science programs in the 1990s, students now have the choice of 14. Still, jobs are highly prized, and the competition for a single job can be substantial, Rogers said.
Yet the determination he has seen from ATC students is amazing, as many students try their best to attain the Dream. More than 500 received diplomas and certificates – sometimes several diplomas and certificates – at the graduation ceremony last spring.
The Aiken County Career and Technology Center too can provide opportunities for high school students, said Principal Brooks Smith. More than 800 are attending the facility in one- or two-hour blocks, ranging from welding to criminal justice to CADD and health science and more.
While the Dream is unique to each individual, said Smith, he always finds pleasure in seeing students who set goals for themselves.
A goal may stop at high school graduation, which can include career-readiness capabilities provided at the Career Center and through career and technology classes at all the high schools.
“It's also about helping students see what opportunities are out there for them,” Smith said. “The Dream may be larger than they thought. We don't want them to be limited by not being aware of what they could achieve.”
An extended version of this article can be found on www.aikenstandard.com.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.
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