What Has Happened to The American Dream?

Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady longer than any other woman in American history, and since her retirement from the White House she has continued to work unsparingly in the public interest, first as an official member of our delegation at the United Nations, and more recently in her lectures and telecasts originating at Brandeis University. She has spoken on more than one hundred campuses in the past fifteen years, and the paper which follows reflects her interest and experience.

What I learned on these trips around the world has been much on my mind. Why, I wondered, were we not more successful in helping the young nations and those in transition to become established along democratic lines? Why was it that the Russians were doing so much better? The answer can be oversimplified, and an oversimplification is false and misleading. But part of the answer, and I think a major part, is that Russia has trained its young people to go out into the world, to carry their services and skills to backward and underdeveloped countries, to replace the missing doctors and teachers, the scientists and technicians; above all, to fill the vacant civil service jobs, prepared not only by training for the job itself, but by learning the language, by a complete briefing in the customs, habits, traditions, and trend of thought of the people, to understand them and deal with them. Where the young Russians go, of course, they take with them their Marxist training, thinking, and system.

And our young Americans? Are they being prepared to take their faith in democracy to the world along with their skills? Are they learning the language and the customs and the history of these new peoples? Do they understand how to deal with them, not according to their own ideas but according to the ideas of the people they must learn to know if they are to reach them at all? Have they acquired an ability to live and work among peoples of different religion and race and color, without arrogance and without prejudice?

Here, I believe, we have fallen down badly. In the last few years I have grasped at every opportunity to meet with the young, to talk with college students, to bring home as strongly as I can to even young children in the lower grades our responsibility for each other, our need to understand and respect each other. The future will be determined by the young, and there is no more essential task today, it seems to me, than to bring before them once more, in all its brightness, in all its splendor and beauty, the American dream, lest we let it fade, too concerned with ways of earning a living or impressing our neighbors or getting ahead or finding bigger and more potent ways of destroying the world and all that is in it.

No single individual, of course, and no single group has an exclusive claim to the American dream. But we have all, I think, a single vision of what it is, not merely as a hope and an aspiration, but as a way of life, which we can come ever closer to attaining in its ideal form if we keep shining and unsullied our purpose and our belief in its essential value.

That we have sometimes given our friends and our enemies abroad a shoddy impression of the dream cannot be denied, much as we would like to deny it. The Ugly American, impressive as it was, struck me as being exaggerated. True, one of the first American ambassadors I ever met in an Eastern country was appallingly like a character in the novel. There are doubtless many others, too many others, men who accept—and seek- the position of representative of their government abroad, with no real interest or respect for the country they go to, and no real interest or respect for the image of their own country which they present to other people. Such men buy their positions by gifts of money to their party or seek them because of the glamorous social life they may lead in exotic places. "Oh, you must go there. You'll have a wonderful time. And the polo is topnotch."

They often do not know the language of the country; they are not familiar with its government or its officials; they are not interested in its customs, or its point of view.

The Russians, and I say it with shame, do much better. They are trained in the language, history, customs, and ways of life of a country before they go to it. They do not confine themselves to official entertaining but make a point of meeting and knowing and establishing friendly relations with people of all sorts, in every class of society, in every part of the country.

When we look at the picture of Russian greed in swallowing one satellite nation after another and contrast it with the picture of American generosity in giving food, clothing, supplies, technical and financial assistance, without the ulterior motive of acquiring new territory, it is stupid and tragic waste that the use of incompetent representatives should undo so much useful work, so great an expense, so much in the way of materials of every kind.

Of course, what the Russians have accomplished in training their young people for important posts in the underdeveloped countries—which, I must repeat, may affect the future course of these countries-has been done by compulsion. That's the rub. For what we must do is to achieve the same results on a voluntary basis. We do not say to our young people: "You must go here and take such a job." But we can show them that where we fail, the Russians will win, by default. We can show them the importance of acquiring the kind of training that will make them useful and honorable representatives of their country wherever they may go abroad.

Perhaps the new frontier today is something more than the new revolution in textiles and methods and speed and goods. It in the frontier of men's minds. But we cannot cast an enduring light on other men's minds unless the light in our own minds burns with a hard, unquenchable flame.

One form of communication we have failed in abjectly: that is in the teaching of languages. Most school children have several years of inadequate teaching in one language or another. I say inadequate because the study of a language, after all, is inadequate if one cannot learn to read and write it, to speak and to understand it. During the last war, the government found a simplified and most effective method of teaching such difficult languages as Japanese and Chinese to American GIs. In a matter of weeks they had mastered more of the language than formerly they would have acquired in the same number of years. And yet in our schools the old cumbersome, unproductive methods are still in use.

It seems to me so obvious that it should not need to be said that we must increase and improve the teaching of languages to our young people, who will otherwise find themselves crippled and sorely handicapped in dealing with people of foreign races and different cultures.

These are things our children should be told. These are the conditions they are going to have to meet. They ought to be made to understand exactly what competition they will encounter, why they must meet it, how they can meet it best. Yet I rarely find, in talking with them, that they have been given the slightest inkling of the meaning of the Soviet infiltration of other countries, or that the future the Soviets are helping to build is the one with which they will have to contend. I rarely find that anyone has suggested that our own young people should have any preparation whatsoever to cope with the problems that are impending.

That is why, in the course of the past several years, I have fitted into my schedule, whenever I could, occasions to talk with the young. Sometimes they come up to Hyde Park by the busload to ask questions or to discuss problems. Sometimes I talk at their schools or colleges.

The other night, three boys from Harvard, one of them my grandson, came to see me. The head of the temporary government of Tanganyika had requested that some American students be sent there to teach English to their students, so that when the latter came to America to study they would be able to understand and communicate without difficulty. The young American students were also to participate in work projects and live in the native villages, where they could study conditions.

Thirty Americans, as a pilot project, were needed, and the cost for each was estimated at $1500. There was, I am happy to say, no problem in getting recruits. The difficulty came in raising money. The big foundations turned them down, whether because the project seemed unimportant, whether because of the youth of the people involved, or whether because they had failed to draw up a sufficiently complete, telling, and comprehensive prospectus of their plans, I do not know.

I was greatly interested, for it is out of such undertakings that bridges of understanding are built. I urged them to draw up the clearest possible statement of their plan and then to ask for scholarships. Certainly there must be thirty people willing to finance one scholarship each, in order to establish bonds of friendship and cooperation with a young nation.

Of course, there are great numbers of American college students with little information about and even less interest in the world in which they live. They are absorbed in their own concerns, in the social activities and the sports of their colleges, or in planning for their future careers. All this is natural enough. The trouble is that, on the whole, college students in some other countries start much earlier to relate themselves to their world and to become informed about the conditions which they must learn to meet in life.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In