Going Home to the American Dream

July 21, 2014

I was recently thinking about last fall’s Freshman Address, because right now I am working on this year’s Address. Although it seems as if we just finished with Commencement, many of us are already gearing up for the new academic year. 

Last week, Marta and I traveled to California to celebrate my father’s 82nd birthday with the rest of my family. Some of you may remember my dad from last year’s Freshman Address because I described him (with his permission, of course!) as an example of the American Dream. His immigrant parents—my grandparents—did not have financial means, but they did have a deep belief in education, and they encouraged my father to excel academically, first as a student at Bronx High School of Science, then as an undergraduate at City College of New York and Brooklyn College, and finally, as a doctoral student at Harvard. After working in the private sector for a while, he turned to academia, and he eventually retired from the University of Southern California. The arc of his life, from poor kid in the Bronx to Harvard Ph.D., from polymer chemist at Bell Labs to emeritus professor of chemical engineering and materials science at one of the nation’s top universities, is a great example of the classic American Dream narrative of hard work and limitless opportunity leading to success. 

In my address to incoming freshmen last August, I not only spoke about the American Dream, but I challenged our newest students to take up one of the last taboo topics that underpins American Dream mythology: socioeconomic class. From the feedback I received, many students took my challenge to heart. I heard about conversations with roommates and conversations in dining halls (and even at the late, lamented Educated Burgher!). The YDN invited some of its contributors to provide their own critique.

I’m pleased that my suggestion prompted this kind of reflection and discussion, and I hope that the conversations are continuing. Yale, with its strong community traditions is the ideal environment for dialogue and divergent opinions, for both harmonious accord and civil disagreement. Our university provides both a haven and an opportunity—perhaps even an obligation—to ponder almost anything and to discuss almost everything. Now this is a true luxury, one that is available to all of us at Yale.