THE BLOG
08/01/2014 12:40 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

American Dream Fraud: Confession of a Stupid Idealist

David McNew via Getty Images

My grandfather came to America from a shtetl near Minsk with five cents in his pocket and three words of English. Or maybe it was three cents in his pocket and five words of English. He worked hard and sacrificed so that his children and grandchildren could prosper. With a fifth grade education he parlayed a job changing car tires in an alley into a business changing car tired in an alley and eventually a tire store that also sold household appliances. He had six brothers. Some did as well as he did, others struggled but all of them were able to send their kids to college.

I grew up learning this American Dream story and have passed it on for inspiration to my own children -- those I've raised and those I've taught -- but I'm starting to lose confidence in that inspiration and I'm beginning to worry that I'm not only perpetuating a myth but a destructive one. As JFK said, "...the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived, and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic."

The American Dream has, of course, always been at least part fraud. African Americans and others were largely denied access to many of the opportunities that defined it for a long time and even for those individuals with opportunity the hard work=prosperity correlation has not always been a reliable one.

But I'm afraid we now find ourselves in an era of increasingly shattered American Dreams and nowhere is that more true than for the students I teach in South Los Angeles. These are young men and women who have defied all the perils of poverty, violence, ignorance, and despair. They are the ones who've made all the right choices and worked their asses off and faced their struggle head on. They are the young women and men who haven't dropped out, who haven't joined a gang or made a baby or succumbed to the escape of drugs or alcohol or apathy. These are the kids who've believed in the power of hard work. They've shown up to school every day and done their homework every night. They've taken college classes while they were in high school. And they've never backed down from a challenge, academic or otherwise. It is a beautiful thing to see their accomplishments and to be a part of them.

But now I feel a little queasy about the whole thing because while I've been a true believer and I've perpetuated the belief in hard work as the great poverty buster, now when I talk to some of them I feel that I've perpetuated a great fraud upon them.

Because I am hearing from young men and women who have just graduated college -- just like I urged them to four and five years ago -- and now they owe thousands in student loans and it seems they are lucky to get any job at all and most of them are working in jobs that don't require a college education. The lucky ones can move back with their parents and not all of them are that lucky. Surely the job market will improve -- won't it? I hope so because that is what I'm telling these unemployed and under-employed former students who drank the Kool-aid about a college education that I served them when I was their teacher. I hope I'm right and their struggle is not the result of long-term structural economic shifts. I hope I'm not just perpetuating more myths because it is what I told this year's senior and this year's juniors. I don't know what else to tell them. Go to college. Go to the best college you can. I'm still a believer but I wonder if I'm perpetrating a fraud.

This year one of the seniors in my class needed a little extra prodding to apply to college. Let's call her Yazmin -- not her real name, of course. She is bright and hard-working but a broken family and a life of poverty and abandonment left her without much confidence. Fortunately, a graduate from a few years ago, now a Harvard University student, agreed to help her complete her applications. It was a beautiful thing to watch, the two of them huddled at my computer plotting a future. Yazmin got into five very good private colleges. All of them gave her financial aid, scholarships, and still expected her to borrow 25 or 30 thousand dollars a year. This is a child with nothing. A fractured family at a subsistence level. How do you ask that child to make a decision about taking on that much debt? She's never had more than $20 in her pocket. And what am I supposed to tell her? Unless I'm willing to co-sign on those loans -- and I still owe thousands I borrowed to put my own children through college.

I called the admissions offices of a few of those private universities to ask them why they would offer such an arrangement to a poverty-stricken child, to ask if they understood what it might be like for that child to be given such an impossible choice. I was told that a superior college experience is worth any amount of money. I understand that argument. College is not a job training program. It's a life-transforming experience. But so is owing more money than you might ever be able to pay off. So, I'm sorry, but if the university wants to transform poor children they need to try a little harder to understand what it is like to have nothing.

Yazmin decided, instead, to attend a campus of the California State University system, the largest university system in the world and the gateway to post-secondary education for thousands of underprivileged young people. She will have to borrow about $8000 a year, still a terrifying amount for someone with nothing, but she has faith in what I've told her, that a college education is her way out of poverty. I wish I had as much confidence in our economy and the potential for economic justice as Yazmin has in me.

I'm trying to believe and I'm hoping like hell that things get better. Yazmin was supposed to sign up for a freshman orientation but when she tried to she was asked for a $174 fee. Apparently her financial aid did not cover it. No one -- at this university that serves thousands of underprivileged young people -- would tell a child with nothing at all what to do. She was too ashamed to tell me or anyone else at our high school and then last month was told that her admission to the university had been revoked -- she was now on a wait list for fall enrollment. This news was compounded when her father told her he could no longer provide her a place to live. I wrote to the university on her behalf and within a few days a sympathetic administrator re-instated her. I am grateful for the administrator with a heart but still baffled by the brutality of the institution.

I guess there has never been an abundance of sympathy for those with nothing. Contempt comes easier than empathy. I am not always sympathetic to students who struggle in my class, especially if they seem not to be working hard -- though often those seemingly lazy students are reacting to a storm of misfortune in their lives outside of school or are overwhelmed by the demands of a class they've been insufficiently prepared for. I sometimes have to check myself and get real about who these young women and men are and what they are up against. I will always preach hard work but I'm at my best when the sermon is tempered by a little understanding.

Too many of these young people are born falling backward and the obstacles are prodigious and even sometimes insurmountable. Some of these students are in my classes for two or three years and by the end of it I have invested an enormous amount of time in them -- much of that investment beyond my job description -- and an even greater emotional investment. Sometimes it is difficult not to think of them as my own children, especially those who are no longer being taken care of by their own parents -- and what is happening to a lot of these children has left me angry and heartbroken.

Universities complain that high schools aren't adequately preparing our students for college. They are not unjustified in that complaint. We are not committing enough of our secondary resources to that kind of intellectual and academic preparation. We pay lip service to college prep and all too often allow too many obstructions and too much compromise.

But I'd like to turn the tables on the post-secondary industry and ask them what they are doing to ensure that our students succeed once they get to college and after they graduate. I'm sure that most universities could present a power point demonstrating all the supports they have for minority students and struggling students but let's be real. They could do more, probably a lot more. Starting with a real commitment to full inclusion and an outright rejection of elitism.

Elitism is a form of ignorance as destructive as any other and universities need resist the seduction of money and power so they aren't repositories of that ignorance. They -- and anyone else who gives a damn -- need to promote the ideals of equal opportunity and the American Dream and help support me and other idealists who try to help struggling children.