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Greene: American Dreaming

07/03/12 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) With July 4th upon us, commentator Stephanie Greene, who lives on a farm in Windham County with her family, considers one version of the American Dream.

(Greene) Some years ago, I was among a group of parents who took a little school of 90 students, grades k-3, in Spencer, Mass, to the Worcester Art Museum. Admission was free for the children, but to raise money for the buses, we had an art fair. And in preparation for our visit, we brought in pictures of some of the artworks the children would see at the museum and talked about the artists.

The day came. As a group of first graders assembled in the Impressionist gallery, a little girl, who lived in a trailer, qualified for free lunch and wore a ragtag dress, pointed at a canvas across the room and said loudly, "THAT is a Monet." And she was right.

I loved that moment not only because the docent nearly fell over in shock, but because that little girl was laying claim to great culture, despite her circumstances. She declared the picture "wicked pretty" and listened closely to what the docent told the group about the paintings.

No one had told this child that loving art was elitist. Or that only snobs cared about big ideas or beauty, or that reading great books was a waste of time because it won't make you money. She was embracing the very best of the American Dream, the part that says we all have a right to reach beyond where we are, not just materially, but educationally, and culturally - to try and be better, to educate ourselves, to grow, to try new things, to dare.

Somehow the definition of the American Dream has been dumbed down to being about nothing more than money. If you have enough money to buy a house, you've made it. If you have more money than your parents, you've arrived. Only when you have a lot of money, can you enjoy "the good things", and consume pricey stuff. Culture has become a mere accessory, like a designer purse.

But the trouble with the notion that only the rich should have access to the greatest accomplishments of culture is that it's so un-American. Because there are places on the planet where you really cannot aspire to anything much beyond the circumstances of your birth, where there is little hope for an education, or betterment of any kind. People flee those places for America , or try, because here it's different.

Self-improvement is more American than apple pie (which is German, by the way). Our history is rife with striving. Check out the benevolent societies formed by new immigrants that sponsored concerts, plays and lectures in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Look at The Lowell Offering, a literary magazine produced by the female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts. The G.I. Bill, night school and now even online courses from Harvard and Stanford Universities are part of that tradition.

I often think of that little girl who knew a Monet when she saw one. My dream for her is that she never, ever stops striving.
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