Benjamin Franklin exhorted his fellows to “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” John Stuart Mill (like Franklin himself) is among that rare breed who managed to do both. It hardly needs stating that Mill’s writing and thought is influential. Across the field of political philosophy, ethics, gender studies and economics, his writings still carry a good deal of weight.
American society is fragmenting. Social solidarity is withering, as evidenced by the fading influence of mediating institutions like unions, churches, and social clubs. Dwindling participation in the community organizations that used to bridge social gaps means that Americans tend more and more to interact exclusively with people who are like themselves.
America sees itself as a meritocracy. No other nation has turned upward mobility into a civic religion. And education has been central to that ethos, allowing us to reconcile our individualism with our egalitarian commitments.
As a rhetorical ideal, greater opportunity is hard to beat. Just about all candidates for high elected office declare their commitments to promoting opportunity – who, after all, could be against it? But opportunity is, to borrow a term from the philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin, a "protean" word, with different meanings for different people at different times.
At the very heart of the American idea is the notion that, unlike in other places, we can start from nothing and through hard work have everything. That nothing we can imagine is beyond our reach. That we will pull up stakes, go anywhere, do anything to make our dreams come true. But what if that's just a myth? What if the truth is something very different? What if we are…stuck?
On a warm spring evening in Washington, D.C., a fleet of limousines and town cars delivered hundreds of guests, bedecked in black tie and long gowns, to a gala celebration of the American Dream: the annual awards night for the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.
When an intellectual dies, there are no heaps of flowers or public mournings. The odd wistful editorial will be written in upmarket newspapers; colloquia organized in ivy-clad colleges. Few Americans will know, for instance, that Ronald Dworkin, a formidable figure in American liberal philosophy, died last year.
What’s happening to American matrimony? In 1960, more than 70 percent of all adults were married, including nearly six in ten twentysomethings. Half a century later, just 20 percent of 18-29-year olds were hitched in 2010. Marriage was the norm for young America. Now it's the exception.
In August 2011, there was panic on the streets of London. Riots broke out in Tottenham, fueled in part by community anger about a police shooting. Other neighborhoods and then other English cities followed suit. The transfixing images of urban hordes looting storefronts and setting cars and buses ablaze played over and over again on television screens worldwide. When the police were finally able to tame the riots, the property damage was in the hundreds of millions of pounds, 3,000 Britons were in handcuffs, and five men were dead.
The deep divides in American education, from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate, threaten to create a class-based society. Advantage and disadvantage are inherited to a degree that undermines our claims to be open and fair. There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning. But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.