Is getting ahead important to you? American society is unique in the emphasis placed on achievement and success. In fact, it’s a moral mandate in America, says sociologist Robert Merton.
Three of four Americans agree that getting ahead is important to them. That figure hasn’t wavered over the four national surveys I conducted in 2009 and 2010. Achievement is a core American value. It’s another value that fits the four criteria I outlined this week: a strongly and widely held principle, shared across demographic lines, and stable over time. The emphasis on getting ahead, coupled with the core value of self-reliance we discussed yesterday, means that success or failure “are results wholly of personal qualities, that he who fails has only himself to blame,” says Merton, “for the corollary to the concept of the self-made man is the self-unmade man.”
Those who fail to get ahead suffer a defect of will, a lack of persistence, verve, or some other personal shortcoming. In an individualistic, achievement-oriented society, those who win and those who lose get all the credit for the outcome.
The image of the self-made man or woman is a strong myth in America, captured during the Gilded Age in the stories of Horatio Alger. Alger rose from humble origins himself and graduated with honors from Harvard in 1852. Before his death in 1899, he wrote more than 100 books depicting young men who, through pluck, hard work, and sturdy moral principles rose from rags to riches. Today, one finds 21st century versions of Hortio Alger in the thousands of self-help books that offer the tips and tricks of success.
Of course, the myth of the self-made man or woman is just that—a myth. Many forces larger than the individual affect our fates. It is somewhat ironic, for example, that there are Horatio Alger scholarships. If success is all about hard work and moral determination, why would anyone need the support of a scholarship institution?
Next week, I’ll write about more core American values, but please comment on this enduring idea.
Does Horatio Alger still make sense?
What does getting ahead mean to you?
Is it a driving force in your life?
Please Comment below.
(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)