Going forth on the Fourth

Putting on my sociological hat – which sits to the right of where most social science headgear sits atop others – I can list any number of reasons why many Americans have extra tall hurdles to leap.

To start there’s poverty.

Add extraordinary numbers of young people who are forced to grow up with missing parents.

While claims of racism and other forms of discrimination are regularly overstated, that doesn’t mean they’re never on-target.

Perverse peer pressures can be paralyzing academically and in other ways.

For people with weak skills, increasingly demanding job markets make earning a decent living and supporting a family increasingly difficult.

Many men and women are held back by bad health; sometimes physical illness, sometimes mental illness, sometimes both.

All true and more.  But as we begin America’s birthday weekend, I would argue that more debilitating than constrained opportunities are wasted ones, in what very much remains a land of opportunity.  Or as I like saying, a land of second and sometimes third chances.

One reason many people don’t seize what’s realistically in their reach is that they’ve been taught that the United States is a fundamentally unfair place, so why plough ahead if doing so means sweating futilely?  More recently, legitimate concerns about inequality also have convinced many that the American game is rigged, particularly by dastardly “one-percenters.”

As a counter, I look to a conversation I had with Chester (“Checker”) E. Finn, Jr., one of our country’s most insightful and prolific education scholars, while researching a book of mine, Broken Bonds, a few years ago.  My question was about the power of education.

“It’s incontrovertible that at the high end there’s a greater gap between the ultra-rich and everybody else.  At the same time, there’s still a welcome degree of social mobility for people who get educated and work hard.  It’s possible to get ahead.  It’s possible to get your kids ahead.  I keep seeing this especially in immigrant families, as they arrive with what might be called immigrant values of working hard, keeping the grocery store open eighteen hours a day, and saving enough money to send the kids to college.”

All true again, despite the fact that some consider it unfair and wrong to cite the industriousness of many new Americans when talking about troubles undermining many older ones.  I understand the critique, not that I agree with it, as there is much to learn on the Fourth every July from all who go forth, not in preordained defeat, but with driving appreciation.