In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville explicates the ills of the American dream, describing citizens of abundant democracies (Americans in particular) as melancholy slaves to success. My studies of de Tocqueville’s work in Jonathan Koch’s 10th grade English class turned out to be some of the most compelling and impactful curriculum I have engaged in at Wesleyan, and “Democracy in America” applies even to my high school career more than I ever thought it would.
Looking back on this captivating slice of my American Literature class, I’ve come to realize that my fascination with de Tocqueville’s writing is the result of relatable, applicable content that transcends the capricious fluctuations of American Culture. What de Tocqueville had to say will always be relevant, and it applies all too well to the life of a Wesleyan student.
De Tocqueville observed the irony of the American Dream; ambitious capitalists of the early 19th century worked so tirelessly to achieve an archetypal model of success that by the time they got what they wanted, they were dead. Here we are in the early 21st century, and nothing has changed. Americans have glorified the ideal lifestyle profusely, and our efforts to achieve this societal standard often dominate our existence so much that we never taste the fruits of our labor. At some point, the American Dream gets in the way of experiencing the American Dream, and if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves caught in a similar paradox as high school students.
Simply put, the American Dream goes something like this: graduate high school with a 4.0, relish in the “college experience,” establish a successful career, get married, start a family, make lots of money and then retire in Florida. This “dream” has evolved into a mundane list of achievements and milestones. We tenaciously strive to fit one mold after another until the American Dream is complete. Then, when we are finally retired at the ripe old age of 60, as we kick back in our rocking chairs and reflect on our success, we’ll realize that we’ve been so busy doing everything that we haven’t really done anything. We were so busy being successful that we forgot to make an impact or serve a purpose. We forgot to do something that actually matters, and we’ll feel empty. Most importantly, we’ll have forgotten to have fun.
Perhaps as a high school student at Wesleyan, you’re working to figure out where you fit in as a freshman, and by the time you do that, you’ll already be a sophomore. Then you might work so hard as a sophomore to accomplish something significant athletically that by the time you finish that, you’ll already be a junior. Then as a junior you’ll turn your focus toward academics, and as a senior, you’ll try to get into college. All the while, trying to fit in socially and portray a perfect Wesleyan student. No matter what endeavors you pursue in high school, don’t let them consume these four years of your life. Look around once in a while to enjoy where you are.