Imagine you are from another planet and have arrived in the United States.
Your mission: You must send a report to your extraterrestrial superiors describing the cultural beliefs of these strange people called Americans. Take five minutes and create a list of at least five statements that describe American beliefs and values. Here’s an example: Success is more important than happiness. Here’s another one: Happiness is more important than success.
From the point of view of an unbiased (alien) outsider, which items on your list do you think are true and beneficial? Which items do you think are mistaken or even harmful?
In his Opinion piece “Five Lies Our Culture Tells,” David Brooks questions many of the core beliefs of American society. He believes these “lies” have led to a spiritual and emotional crisis. In tracing the origin of this crisis, he outlines five lies he believes to be at the root of many of the challenges and divisions Americans face today. Here are excerpts from four of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good …
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. …
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. …
Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.
The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. …
The article concludes:
No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.
We talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.
Students, read the entire article, then return to your list from the beginning and tell us:
— How did your list of cultural beliefs and values compare to Mr. Brooks’s list of lies? What lies or hidden assumptions would you add to or delete from his list of five?
— What do you think of Mr. Brooks’s argument? Do you believe that American culture is in crisis? Do we need a cultural revolution? Or do you think that Mr. Brooks may be overlooking positive aspects of the things he describes as “lies”? Which parts of Mr. Brooks’s arguments resonate with you and which do not?
— Do you agree that we live in a “hyper-individualistic” society? If so, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of that individualism? How has American individualism affected your own life and aspirations?
— For the conclusion to the report for your alien superiors, would you say that American culture promotes living a happy and fulfilling life? Why or why not? What do you think are the keys to a rich, happy and fulfilling life?
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