Harlon L.Dalton Horatio Alger Essay

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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.]

America historically owns the reputation of being the land of opportunity, and for generations immigrants have fled to the United States to experience the freedom and equality our government lays claim to. At the root of this reputation is the American Dream, the belief that with hard work anyone can succeed based solely on his or her merits. While definitions of success vary, the American Dream defines it as the ability to become a “self-made man,” thereby rising to a more-than-comfortable state of living.

The American Dream is believed to be blind to race, sex, or socio-economic status and at a first glance, seems to be almost Utopian. Conversely, repeated examples and statistics of the lower-classes, those continually facing the harsh reality that opportunity and equality are empty promises, only prove the opposite. The countless stories of failure to reach the American Dream significantly override the few success stories that keep the myth alive. However, these few success stories keep Americans, as well as the rest of the world, believing in the false opportunities the American Dream puts forth.

Although the American public is force-fed propaganda to believe the American Dream is attainable to everyone, numerous obstacles prevent the lower class in America from reaching the “self-made man” myth. For generations, Americans have been led to believe that the American Dream is realistic through propaganda. For example, advocates readily use the example of Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated man who “rose from modest origins to become a renowned scientist, philosopher, and statesman,” as a prime example of the validity of the American Dream (Money 295).

Who better to use as an example than one of the forefathers of a country that prides itself on supposed equal opportunity? In addition to Franklin, advocates use the present-day example of Colin Powell, an African-American who can also be considered a “self-made man,” since he went from the ghetto streets of the Bronx to become the highest ranking military officer (Blue 306). These examples and others are quickly used to extinguish the thought that perhaps the American Dream can only be a myth to the lower classes. In the same vein, those who attempt to disprove the American Dream are considered un-American, and so are quickly silenced.

However, these few success stories and accusations cannot change the truth, the American Dream is not equally attainable to all. Education is known to be the key to success, but due to unequal education in America, children are given dissimilar opportunities to achieve the American Dream. In his book, Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol illustrates lower-class schools: “four of the six toilets do not work…some of the books are missing the first hundred pages…sometimes there’s a teacher present doing something at his desk.

Sometimes there’s no adult in the room” (33-37). The learning atmosphere at this school cannot be compared to those of an upper-class school that provides not only clean and motivating learning environments, but a challenging and technically advanced curriculum as well. A study conducted by Richard de Lone of the Carnegie Council on Children in the 1970’s revealed the effects of different learning conditions when he found a direct relationship between social class and scores on standardized tests such as the SAT (Mantsios 329).

Fifteen years after the original study, College Board surveys expose statistics that continue to prove, “the higher the student’s social status, the higher the probability that he or she will get higher grades” (Mantsios 329). Although numerous lower-class students refuse to become a statistic and succeed academically through high school, additional studies reveal that these same students are still four times less likely to receive a post graduate degree than a student from an upper-class family (Mantsios 330).

However, this unfortunate statistic is not due to lack of hard work, as an advocator of the American dream wants you to believe. Instead, the student’s failure is because even if a lower-class child succeeds at his or her school, the curriculum he or she received cannot possibly compare with the more advanced and challenging curriculum of a higher-class school, nor prepare a student to do well when presented with a college curriculum. Unfortunately, the school’s lack of appropriate education results directly from poor government funding.

So even with hard work, the lower-class student is still held down by his socio-economic status. Poverty-stricken parents are unable to offer their children the same attention and motivation as parents of a higher-class can, therefore never providing these children with the mindset that they are able to accomplish the American dream. According to Mantsios, 40 million Americans live in poverty, and the mental and physical affects the low standard of living has on them is undeniable (Mantsios 328). Citizens who live in poverty work long hours for little pay, yet return to a household that in no way symbolizes the hard work put forth.

Within this environment, very few people have the positive outlook to mentor children successfully. In addition, many families do not make sufficient income to provide adequate food, housing or health care, and so then health conditions are drastically different than those of the upper class. According to Mantsios, Lower-class standing is correlated with higher rates of infant mortality, eye and ear disease, arthritis, physical disability, diabetes, nutritional deficiency, respiratory disease, mental illness and heart disease (328).

Therefore, even if a parent did have a positive outlook to provide their child motivation to succeed, most would not have the time or physical and mental effort to give their children that type of attention, since their main priority is survival. Even Ken Hamblin, an advocator of the American Dream, pointed out the importance of parental involvement, “I have never believed-because I was never told…that I could never get the fullest measure of opportunity in America” (Hamblin 381). The importance of parental motivation is key in raising a child with confidence and inspiration to accomplish their American Dream.

Without it, many children are unable to defeat the remaining obstacles that stand in the way of success. Even though many Americans are proud of the free-trade economic structure in the United States, capitalist policy is only successful in further widening the gap between rich and poor, preventing the lower-class from attaining their American Dream. The American Dream was founded on the backs of small business-owners and farmers who at one time had the ability to become self-made men, but as Stephen Cruz pointed out in his interview with Studs Terkel, “It’s getting so big.

The small-business venture is not there anymore. Business has become too big to influence” (339). Because the capitalist economic structure supports private ownership and growth and opposes government intervention to prevent it, companies have grown big enough to have the characteristics of monopolies. Due to this, small companies or farmers cannot possibly compete with larger stores or corporate farms that can easily buy them out or price them out of business. Additionally, capitalism presents another oppressive strength that is beyond individual control: class domination.

According to Mantsios, “The class structure in the United States is a function of its economic system- capitalism” (331). Therefore, even though America prides itself on being a “classless society”, a class system is unavoidable with a free-trade economic system because the private and individualistic characteristics force a distinction between the haves and have-nots. Class distinction provides not only feelings of inferiority for the lower-classes, but monetary inadequacy as well. Over 66 percent of consumers with incomes over $100,000 or more annually have some type of inherited assets (Mantsios 331).

Higher-class children have an advantage from birth since they are guaranteed large sums of money at sometime in their lives. Furthermore, it is commonly known that it takes money to make money in a capitalistic system and so the inheritance laws only widen the gap between the rich and poor, keeping the lower-class exactly where they started: on the bottom. Even though the American Dream has been disproved numerous times, there continue to be advocates that insist the American dream is attainable to all those willing to work hard.

For example, Collin Powell reached his American dream and according to him, “People keep asking the secret of my success. There isn’t any secret. I work hard and spend long hours. It’s as simple as that” (Blue 306). While it is true that hard work is an ingredient of the American dream, Powell also admits that he had great support and motivation from his family, “They [Powell’s parents] wanted a better life for Colin…education was the key to a better life. The Powells taught their children success comes with hard work” (Blue 307). Therefore, Powell had another key ingredient, strong motivation from parents, to add to his determination.

But what about children who do not have that ingredient? Unfortunately, those children are never taught the importance of hard work and as a result, never show it. In addition, another success story, an African American by the name of Ken Hamblin, argues that advancement towards the American dream is based on virtues, qualities that are gained through some type of hard work or experience, not race or sex. However, like Dalton argues, “such standards…must come from somewhere. They [merits] must be decided upon by somebody…how should these be ranked? (Dalton 313). So if hypothetically we are judged solely on merits, everyone’s interpretation on the importance of those merits will be different. Perhaps Hamblin had the luck to be in the right place at the right time, where those in power thought highly of the merits he possessed, and perhaps he also had the luck to avoid places that didn’t. Besides using these examples, advocates also argue that even if the American Dream is not completely valid, it still provides a positive motivation for the lower-classes, encouraging the will to fight hard and not give up.

Still, although it might provide motivation, the other countless obstacles will still stand in the way of success, only to provide disheartenment and feelings of inadequacy. The American dream can only offer empty promises of equal opportunity to succeed. However, because the American Dream is so deeply embedded in our culture, it greatly influences our perception of others and our perception of success. The “all you need is hard work to succeed” mindset has encouraged Americans to flaunt costly possessions to give the persona of a hard worker, while Americans who do not own extravagant objects are looked at as lazy or incompetent.

In reality, most cases are opposite. It is undeniable that an American laboring long hours for minimum wage works harder than an American who doesn’t maintain a job because he lives off inheritance money, but that is not what the myth has taught us. The American Dream has taught us that each American has an equal opportunity to succeed and because it has been accepted for generations, the myth continues to make us blind to the many inequalities that prevent the lower class from reaching their dream.

Therefore, the American Dream will only leave lower-class Americans, “in a familiar place-on the outside looking in,” as they continue to see their dreams die, while they watch the dreams of the higher-class blossom (Money 296). The American Dream does not offer hope, but rather keeps Americans in the same class they were born into. Unless action is taken, the pattern will persist from generation to generation, making the rich richer and forcing the poor to become poorer.

This vicious cycle is a result of a blinding myth that not only gives false hopes, but prevents the inequalities of America from taking center stage. It seems as though the myth cannot be weakened, but then after all, with a little hard work, one can do anything. References Blue, Rose and Naden, Corinne J. “From Colin Powell: Straight to the Top. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Terkel, Studs. “Stephen Cruz. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Dalton, Harlon L. Horatio Alger” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Hamblin, Ken. “The Black Avenger. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities. New York: Harper Collins, 1991 Mantsios, Gregory. “Class in America: Myths and Realities. “Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St. “Money and Success. ” Rereading America. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/ St.

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