Believing in the Great American Experiment

A few years ago I conducted a study with Indigenous students about their experiences in college. One of the questions I asked the students was who they thought higher education benefited. I initially assumed that Indigenous students would think that this was white people, given that the system of higher education was designed for white people and continues to maintain whiteness. But interview after interview, the participants shared their personal stories of how higher education represented a way to give back to their communities, a way for them to prosper, a way for them to build the skills and experiences and networks necessary for their future success. The participants stated firmly that success (in the terms they defined) was achievable if they worked hard enough for it.

When I teach interviewing methods, I use this as example of why you should stick with questions even if you aren’t getting the answers you think you should. I wanted participants to focus on the structural factors of higher education not on their individual experiences. Yet, after the study was done and I started analyzing the data, the responses to this question provided important insight into the notions we hold about meritocracy.

Throughout the rest of the interview, participants went into great lengths about their experiences with marginalization, how they felt colonized in their classrooms, and how their faculty and peers either ignored them or tokenized them. Yet, when they had the opportunity to discuss this in the “who does higher education benefit” question, they separated their experiences of marginalization from the actual system of higher education. Marginalization happened to them in their daily experiences but the system of higher education was such that they could overcome this marginalization.

This isn’t wholly surprising–the myths of rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps are heavily imbedded in the narrative of being a U.S. citizen. Still, it was hard for me to reconcile how students could so clearly identify the problems of racism and colonialism in their educational experiences, yet continue to think that racism and colonialism didn’t play a role in the system of higher education (or didn’t play a role big enough to affect their outcomes).

But after combing through all of our interviews and reading their journal entries, what I figured out is that to participate in the American experiment, you have to believe in it. The students in my study were very well aware of the failed parts of America–they lived these daily. But they held firm to the notion that one day the experiment might work. One day their hard work could overcome the systemic colonialism and racism they encountered. Those brokering in cynicism might point out that there is no evidence that the American experiment could ever succeed. But for those brokering in hope, if offers a motivation to continue the work forward.

I am pretty critical of the American experiment, too. And I don’t think much might change in my lifetime. But, let’s be honest–I really don’t know that. The future is unwritten. There’s a lot in my lifetime that has changed for the better. So who knows. My commitment to community and to making the world a better place stays the same.

If you broker in cynicism, I ask that you spend some time thinking about why people might broker in hope. Think about why Indigenous folks, who are continually marginalized in higher education, see immense value in their involvement within the system that marginalizes them. Think about why Brown and Black people, who are routinely devalued in our democratic processes, participated in an electoral process in tremendous numbers, while frequently being disenfranchised. Try to understand why they continue to show up for the American experiment.

Over the past few months, several of my posts end on a message of hope. I realize that for many, eternal optimism can seem foolish or ignorant of the realities of the world. I am neither. And if given the choice between cynicism and hope, I will choose hope every single time.

After all, I’m a hope inventor.

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