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Signature Courses

Exploring the American Dream

Rutgers’ course tries to find the elusive meaning of a familiar trope


The contentious 2016 presidential election, which has fueled protests across the country and left a wide split between urban and rural, young and old, black and white and men and women, has left pundits, scholars and regular folks wondering what exactly the “American Dream” is all about.

It’s a topic that Louis Masur, professor in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of American Studies at Rutgers, has always thought was so important he developed a signature course to explore the question even before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off.

“We’re not just asking, ‘What is the American Dream?’” Masur said. “We’re asking, ‘What is America?’ I want to historicize the American Dream for students who are living it. I want them to engage the world critically instead of passively; I want them to think critically and write analytically.”

The class has about 170 students and is ethnically and economically diverse, with many immigrants, children of immigrants and some foreign students. Masur packs his class with a combination of literature (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory), theater (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), film, sports, music and popular culture – from the iconic photo of U.S. Marines rising the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II to Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream.

'When my parents came here for Family Weekend, this was the only course we talked about.'

-Liam Hiester, student

In the very first class, Masur asked students to define the American Dream, and was frustrated when the first several answers involved money. “Ah, again with the making money,” said Masur. “I can’t believe we’re 15 minutes into this class and nobody’s brought up the big buzzwords…”

“Liberty, freedom, democracy, justice!” a student shouted.

“God bless you!” Masur shouted back, then bumped fists with the student. “You, sir, are a true American.”

This definition got Mohammad Memon thinking more deeply about the American Dream. A junior computer science major who was born in Pakistan, Memon took the class mainly because it fulfilled a requirement and fit into his schedule. Soon, however, he found himself more engaged than he had ever expected. He wondered just what motivated his parents to come to the United States.

“One day, after we’d been talking in class about freedom and democracy and so on, I called up my dad and asked him why we did this,” Memon said. “Why did we come? He said, ‘We just wanted to give you kids a better life.’”

Liam Hiester, a first-year cell biology and neuroscience major from West Milford, was just as unexpectedly drawn into the topic after he had met Masur at an Honors College lecture during the summer.

“When my parents came here for Family Weekend, this was the only course we talked about,” Hiester said. “I mean, with my bio and chem classes, how much can you say? They were interested in talking about the political and cultural issues we were discussing in the American Dream class.” 

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The election played an important part in class discussions, increasingly so as election day neared. But Masur said Donald Trump’s victory shocked his students. “This was the most challenging teaching moment I’ve had in 30 years of teaching, and that includes teaching in New York City after 9/11,” he said.

While Masur spent several hours consoling distraught students shocked by Trump’s victory, there were others who were happy the real estate mogul was elected. “I struggled to respond in a way that wasn’t polemical,” he said. “It’s not my job to be polemical.”

Instead, he told his class–through a post on the course website–to decide what type of country they want and do what it takes to achieve their goal.

“Those who supported Clinton have work ahead. Those who supported Trump do as well. …There is a struggle here for the meaning of America.  As for policies going forward, we shall see. Trump does not have a mandate. For students who feel like this is the end of the world, it isn’t. America moves not in a straight line, but in shock waves. You all must continue to work for the nation you both imagine and desire.”

Learn more about the Signature Course The American Dream.