Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Death of an Academic

Today, Morning Edition featured, as part of their series on the American dream, a story about a man named Juan Carlos Reyes, went to college in order to work his way out of poverty in the South Bronx.  They said that Reyes was introduced to the notion of the American dream via Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  Reyes describes the idea as that "with hard work and dedication you'll get a nice house, a nice car, and enough money for your kids to go to school."  Afterwards, the program transitioned to its next segment by pointing out that Miller's play was one of many examples of the American dream being a theme of literature.

I find it amusing that no one involved in the segment seemed to recognize the irony of using that particular piece of literature as an illustration of the topic of the series.  Yes, the protagonist, Willy Loman, was a successful person, but his success came at the expense of his happiness and peace of mind.  Is that fact irrelevant to our understanding of the American dream?  Miller conveyed the impression that Willy Loman pursued the surest path to more money and possessions despite the fact that there was another livelihood that would have suited him better and perhaps led to a happier marriage and a better upbringing for his children, even if in a smaller home.

For a long time, I have had the sense that people would understand Miller's play better if it was updated for a modern audience.  I've considered the idea of writing a version called Death of an Academic.  In the social circumstances in which Miller was writing, a man was generally expected to pursue the molded image of the American dream by committing himself early and completely to sales.  Today the assumption is that the more you devote yourself to formal education, the more money you'll acquire, and thus the closer you'll be to the American dream.  Young men and women are expected to follow that path regardless of resources, personal interest, or aptitude.

The Reyes story presents him as having been saved from the unacceptable fate of following his initial ambition to become a doorman.  Before being steered toward higher education, he reasoned that people in that position made sixteen dollars per hour and that that would suit him fine.  He may be better off and happier now than he would have been if he'd acceded to lesser ambitions, but that's not the main idea that I get from the way the story is presented.  Instead, the message seems to be that sixteen dollars per hour is simply not enough.

I graduated with honors from NYU.  In the years between doing so and becoming a full-time freelancer, I never had a job that paid more than nine dollars an hour.  It was a meager existence, but still I was able to support myself - or at least I would have been were it not for the crushing debt I incurred in going to school.  How much more resentful I would be of that fact had I gone to college merely as a means to an end, and not because I was genuinely, passionately interested in my education.

With each generation, we slightly change the shape of the American dream.  But we don't change the notion that one size fits all, that that dream looks the same and feels the same for every type of person.  In fact, some people are better off becoming carpenters than traveling salesmen; some people are better off becoming doormen than graduate teaching assistants.

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