by Dennis Lynch
For those of you who were unable to attend the 30th Reunion weekend in New Haven last fall, I thought you would be interested in an excellent precis of the program provided by Margie Lee, Tony Lee's erudite wife. I hope you find it provocative. Due to last-minute constraints in this edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine, this review will take two months of class notes to complete. Here is the first installment:
What is the American Dream? How does it work for us and others? Can the American Dream be renewed? These questions were on the minds of Class of 1964 program organizers Tony Lee, Jon McBride, and Wally Winter when they proposed the theme “Creating a New American Dream” for their 30th college reunion.
The program, which took the form of three panel discussions on Friday, November 11, and Saturday, November 12, and informally included a lot of discussion among the 200 or so attendees, was rich in perspective and inspiring in content. Panelists ranged from three Yale students who are offspring of the Class of 1964 (Anne Tanner, Rebecca Whitney, and Todd Jokl), to historian Paul Kennedy, Senator Joe Lieberman, Mayor John DeStefano of New Haven, as well as George Washington University professor Howard Gillette, Yale dean Dick Brodhead, investment banker Alan McFarland, philosopher/ethicist Strachan Donnelley, and Episcopal priest Stephan Klingelhofer.
The content moved from looking at the theme in literature to tracking its relevance in the past few decades; from hearing what it means to college students today to listening to the mayor of New Haven's observations; from recognizing our provincialism to seeing the necessity of expanding our dream to include the globe; from acknowledging the misfortune of those left out of the dream, to looking for ways for the dream to encompass all.
The American Dream has been a theme for over 200 years. Dean Brodhead read excerpts of Letters of an American Farmer from 1782, which evoked components of the dream — the immigrant story, the land of plenty, hard work, advancement, freedom, prosperity, and moral benefits. In fact, the American Dream has been a thread through American writings and literature, from The Great Gatsby to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, it encompasses both myth and reality.
For a present take on the dream, we need look no further than this fall's elections. Although the dream may have embodied optimism in the past, it is clear that Americans are not feeling optimistic. Mayor DeStefano of New Haven observed "voters wanting to disconnect, not be responsible, and to build walls." Call it lack of empathy, or meanness, there's an attitude that “I'll be compassionate if it doesn't cost me anything.” Cutbacks in educational funding at the state and national levels leave many poor youth with little opportunity to escape poverty.
Senator Lieberman of Connecticut defined three groups that are currently feeling left out of the American Dream:
- Poor Americans, disproportionately Black and Hispanic, many with ongoing cycles of out-of-wedlock births
- Middle- and lower-middle-class Americans, often white males, affected by high-tech changes which are often the result of international competition, concerned about their ability to provide for their families and feeling that minorities and women are getting more attention
- Those who are economically successful but feel hollow, worried about violence, and pessimistic about their ability to raise children with meaningful values in today's culture.
To be continued . . .