he second important reason why immigrants have traditionally been drawn to the United States is the belief that everyone has a chance to succeed here. Generations of immigrants, from the earliest settlers to the present day, have come to the United States with this expectation. They have felt that because individuals are free from excessive political, religious, and social controls, they have a better chance for personal success. Of particular importance is the lack of a hereditary aristocracy.
Because titles of nobility were forbidden in the Constitution, no formal class system developed in the United States. In the early years of American history, many immigrants chose to leave older European societies because they believed that they had a better chance to succeed in America. In “the old country,” the country from
which they came, their place in life was determined largely by the social class into which they were born. They knew that in America they would not have to live among noble families who possessed great power and wealth inherited and accumulated over hundreds of years.
15 The hopes and dreams of many of these early immigrants were fulfilled in their new country. The lower social class into which many were born did not prevent them from trying to rise to a higher social position. Many found that they did indeed have a better chance to succeed in the United States than in the old country. Because millions of these immigrants succeeded, Americans came to believe in equality of opportunity. When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he was impressed by the great uniformity of conditions of life in the new nation. He wrote,
The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more / perceived that. . . equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived.
It is important to understand what most Americans mean when they say they believe in equality of opportunity. They do not mean that everyone is—or should be—equal. However, they do mean that each individual should have an equal chance for success. Americans see much of life as a race for success. For them, equality means that everyone should have an equal chance to enter the race and win. In other words, equality of opportunity may be thought of as an ethical rule. It helps ensure that the race for success is a fair one and that a person does not win just because he or she was born into a wealthy family, or lose because of race or religion. This American concept of “fair play” is an important aspect of the belief in equality of opportunity.
President Abraham Lincoln expressed this belief in the 1860s when he said,
We.. . wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.
When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor for his whole life.
18 However, the price to be paid for this equality of opportunity is competition. If much of life is seen as a race, then a person must run the race in order to succeed; a person must compete with others, even though we know not everyone will be successful. If every person has an equal chance to succeed in the United States, then many would say that it is every person’s duty to try. Many Americans enjoy matching their energy and intelligence against those of others in a contest for success. People who like to compete are often more successful than others, and many are honored by being called winners. On the other hand, those who do not like to compete and those who are not successful when they try are sometimes dishonored by being called losers.
19 The pressures of competition in the life of an American begin in childhood and continue until retirement from work. Learning to compete successfully is part of growing up in the United States, and competition is encouraged by strong programs of competitive sports provided by the public schools and community groups. Competitive sports are now popular with both men and women.
20 The pressure to compete causes Americans to be energetic, but it also places a constant emotional strain on them. When they retire (traditionally at age sixty-five), they are at last free from the pressures of competition. But then a new problem arises. Some may feel useless and unwanted in a society that gives so much prestige to those who compete well. This may be one reason why older people in the United States sometimes do not have as much honor and respect as they have in other, less competitive societies. In fact, generally speaking, any group of people who do not compete successfully—for whatever reason—do not fit into the mainstream of American life as well as those who do compete and succeed.
t is difficult to predict the economic future. More and more, Americans find themselves competing in a global economy, and there will continue to be cycles of upturns and downturns. One thing is certain, however. The American tradition of abundance has had a profound effect on the lifestyles and the values of the American people. When Americans experience a decline in abundance, they become more pessimistic. However, even economic downturns may have long-term positive effects.
On the positive side, a decline in American abundance causes people to become less wasteful and more protective of their environment. Many Americans now recycle aluminum and tin cans, plastic and paper bags, plastic and glass containers, office paper, and newspapers. Children study about environmental issues in school: They learn about care of the local environment and the problems of the earth—air and water pollution, global warming, and the threat to endangered species. Businesses sometimes “adopt” sections of roads, and the company employees volunteer their time to keep the trash picked up. Communities conduct environmental impact studies before developing empty land. Sometimes a
local community chooses to keep its rural lifestyle and protect its historical lands. The people may reject development, even if it means losing potential new jobs. For example, the citizens of a rural community near Washington, D. C., were able to stop the Disney company from building a new theme park in their area, even though Virginia state officials were in favor of the development.
On the negative side, old habits are hard to change. Many Americans are optimistic about their future, but others are pessimistic about the economy of their country and its ability to expand forever. Because of the profound effect abundance has had on the American belief system, a widespread perception of its decline could have important consequences. Whether the traditional American values will remain strong in the coming decades or undergo basic changes is impossible to predict with certainty. Only time will tell.
27 ПГ he most significant departure from the ideal of equality of opportunity in
jL education has occurred in the education of African Americans. As we saw in the previous chapter, after the Civil War in the 1860s, the southern states developed a social and legal system which segregated the former black slaves from the white population in all public facilities, including schools. Black people in the southern states were prohibited by law from attending schools with whites. Blacks had separate schools which were inferior to the white schools by almost any measure.
28 In a test case in 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States stated that racial segregation in public schools and other public facilities in the southern states did not violate the Constitution. Equality of opportunity was such an important American value that the Supreme Court had to pretend that the separate black schools and other facilities were equal to those of whites, when everyone knew that they were not. The Supreme Court invented what is called the “separate but equal” doctrine to justify racial segregation in public schools and other public facilities in the southern states. One Supreme Court justice strongly disagreed. Justice John Marshall Harlan believed that the decision violated the nations highest law and its basic values. “Our Constitution is color-blind,” he said, “and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.”
29 Fifty-eight years later a more modern Supreme Court agreed with Justice Harlan. In a historic decision in 1954, it held that laws that forced black students to go to racially segregated schools violated the U. S. Constitution because such schools could never be equal. The opinion of the Court was that “to separate [black school children] from others. . . solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority. . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
30 Although segregated schools were not legal after 1954, they continued to exist in the South until the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s. In the late 1960s and during the 1970s, a series of court decisions forced the nation to take measures to integrate all of its schools, in both the North and the South. In the North, there had been no legal segregation of schools. However, in both the South and the North, the neighborhood schools reflected the makeup of the races who lived
in the neighborhood. Thus, the residential patterns were often the source of the problem, particularly in urban areas. The public schools in the inner city were composed predominantly of African-American students and often shared the neighborhood problems of high crime rates and other forms of social disorder. These schools were clearly unequal to those in the predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods in the suburbs.
31 For the next twenty years, the courts required Americans to try to achieve racial balance in the public schools. The most controversial method used to deal with unequal neighborhood schools was the busing of schoolchildren from their home neighborhoods to schools in more distant neighborhoods in order to achieve a greater mixture of black and white children in all schools. Black children from the inner city were bused to schools in predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods, and students living in the middle-class neighborhoods were bused into the poorer black neighborhood schools. As a result, some children had to ride the bus for an hour each way, going to and from school. Most students did not like it, and neither did their parents. Many school districts have now abandoned mandatory busing and they allow children to attend the school in their own neighborhood, even if it is predominantly black or white. Some school districts have established “magnet” schools in black neighborhoods to attract white children who want to participate in special programs that focus on the arts, science and technology, or foreign languages, which are offered only at the magnet school.
32 Unfortunately, these attempts have met with limited success. The Harvard Project on School Desegregation recently reported that the trend toward ethnic and racial resegregation of the schools is growing, even though the population in the schools is becoming increasingly diverse. Since 1968, white enrollment in the schools has declined by one-sixth, while the African-American population has increased 20 percent and the Hispanic/Latino population has grown by 218 percent. The fastest resegregation is occurring in the South and among Latino communities, usually in low-income communities. Although most would agree that equality of opportunity in education is a goal that should be pursued, it has not been achieved. African- American and Hispanic students continue to have the lowest graduation rates.
33 A new question dealing with racial and ethnic equality in education was brought to the Supreme Court in the late 1970s. The question dealt with the admissions policies of professional schools, such as medical and law schools, which are attached to many of the nations universities. Some of these schools have attempted to do more than treat all applicants equally. Many have tried in recent years to make up for past discrimination against blacks and other minorities by setting aside a certain number of places specifically for applicants from these groups, a practice known as affirmative action. Some schools were so determined to admit minority students that they focused on factors other than high school grades or test scores in their decisions to admit these students, wanting to ensure that the students in their programs reflected the diversity of the eligible student population.
34 This could be seen as special treatment rather than equal opportunity. However, many professional school administrators believed that because of discrimination against these groups in the past, equality now demanded that certain limited numbers of minority students be given some extra advantage in the selection of new
professional students. Having a diverse group of students would lead to richer discussions in the classroom and provide a better and more representative academic experience.
35 These minority quotas were challenged by a white student, Allen Bakke, who was denied admission to the medical school at the University of California at Davis, California. He claimed that the medical school had admitted some nonwhite minority students less qualified than he. The U. S. Supreme Court, in the famous Regents of University of California v. Bakke case of 1978, agreed that he had been denied an equal opportunity for admission. In a rather complicated decision, the Court held that a professional school could not set aside a certain number ol places to be filled only by minority students. Such quotas were a denial of equal educational opportunity. Professional schools, however, could give some extra consideration to nonwhite minority applicants, but the Court was forbidding them to carry this practice too far.
36 After a number of other decisions limiting the use of affirmative action in determining college admissions, in 2003 the Supreme Court seemed to reverse this policy. It decided that the University of Michigan could consider a students ethnic or racial heritage during its decision making. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the Supreme Court decision, “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized.” Both businesses and the military filed briefs in this case, supporting affirmative action as a means of promoting cross-cultural understanding, helping to break down stereotypes, and fostering better understanding among different groups. As many pointed out at the time, affirmative action does not mean that unqualified students will be accepted; there are many more qualified students than spaces for them in these university programs.
What is “culture”? There are many definitions. Some would define it as the art, literature, and music of a people, their architecture, history, religion, and traditions. Others might focus more on the customs and specific behavior of a people. We have chosen to use a sociological definition of culture as the way of life of a group of people, developed over time and passed down from generation to generation. This broad definition includes every aspect of human life and interaction. However, it would be impossible to cover every facet of American culture in a single book. We have, therefore, taken a values approach to our discussion, focusing on the traditional mainstream values that have attracted people to the United States for more than two hundred years. After explaining how these traditional values developed, we will trace how they influence various aspects of American life.
Why a book on American culture? There arc many reasons. Those of us who have worked with foreign students in American universities or who have taught English to students both here and overseas repeatedly encounter questions about life in the United States. These students are frequently confused or even mystified about American values, attitudes, and cultural patterns. Even those students who have mastered enough English to take courses in an American university often find that they do not understand the cultural rules well enough to be successful as students. Many of these rules can be understood only within the broader context of American cultural patterns.
It is not only students who need the kind of information presented in this book. Foreign businesspeople, visiting scholars or government officials, and even tourists find their time in the United States more satisfying when they understand the values that underlie American behavior patterns and institutions. Newly arrived immigrants and refugees adapt more easily to their new home when given a systematic introduction to their new country and its inhabitants.
For all of these reasons, American Ways is suitable for a wide audience. It has been used as a text in a number of programs for foreign students, including intensive English programs, short summer courses in the United States for foreign high school and college students, both quarter and semester courses at American universities, government programs for foreign visitors, and classes for immigrants. It has also been used in many different settings outside the United States, both as a text for students and as a reference guide—for U. S. Peace Corps volunteers, for example, and others who are teaching American culture.
What do we really learn when we study other cultures? First and foremost, we learn about our own. Until we are confronted by a different way of doing things, we assume that everyone does things the same way that we do, and thus our own culture—our values, attitudes, behavior—is largely hidden from our view. When we spend time analyzing another culture, however, we begin to see our own more clearly and to understand some of the subtleties that motivate our behavior and our opinions. By reading American Ways, students can begin to understand themselves and their own cultures better. To enhance this understanding, each chapter in the
book is followed by a series of exercises. Some of these exercises arc specifically designed to encourage students to think about their own values or patterns of behavior and to compare them with what they are learning about or experiencing in American settings. We have also included a number of exercises to encourage students to interact with and talk with Americans. In these exercises we have provided a set of carefully structured questions that students can ask Americans. The answers they receive will help students form a composite picture of American beliefs and practices as they relate to education, business, government, sports, recreation, and so on.
Some of the chapter exercises provide students with an opportunity to explore more fully an idea that has been presented or to discuss ideas with other students.
You may wish to assign different exercises to different students or to small groups of students and then ask them to share their findings and opinions with the class. If possible, small groups should include students from different countries so that in addition to learning about American culture and their own, they are also learning about other cultures.
Perhaps this is the real goal of a course about culture: to help us become more sensitive to cultural differences, and more accepting of them. However, there will always be aspects of another culture that we may not like, no matter how much we understand it. The objective of this book is not to persuade others to approve of life in the United States, but rather to help them understand it more fully.
16 T)erhaps the most dramatic example of the idea of self-improvement is the experience of A. being “bom again.” Some individuals who have had this experience say that when they truly opened their hearts to God and Jesus Christ, their lives were so completely changed, it was like being born again. Whether they identify themselves as born-again Christians, Evangelicals, mainline Protestants or Catholics, they tend to hold conservative religious beliefs. Estimates are that one-third to one-half of all Americans consider themselves to be religious conservatives, although they do not all have the same beliefs. For example, Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican President George W. Bush have both spoken publicly about their born-again experiences.
17 Many of those who are religiously conservative are also politically conservative. Since the 1980s, they have been gaining numbers and political strength in the United States. Under such names as the Religious Right or the Christian Coalition, these individuals have joined together to oppose legalized abortion or to support prayer in the public schools, among other issues.