A few weeks ago, I asked passersby in Davis Square what they remember about Dr. Seuss stories. Madeleine, who appeared to be in her twenties, recalled that the trees “looked really delicious.” Her friend, Ian, fondly remembered his favorite Seuss book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in which Seuss promises great adventures, fame, and success: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
Was Seuss telling the truth? Can we steer ourselves in any direction we choose?
Americans love the idea that any person can succeed if they work hard enough. This assumption that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps lends itself to two simultaneous beliefs. The first is that every “successful” person earned their keep by working harder than others. The second is that every “unsuccessful” person did not work hard enough. These assumptions are based in kernels of truth, but they neglect the overwhelmingly unequal distribution of resources and opportunities. Before we praise Bill Gates and shame the local homeless population, we should consider a few other factors.
The ideas, connections, and diplomas we hold upon graduating from Tufts can open many doors. The opportunity to attend Tufts is itself a great resource that most people in our age group do not have. In fact, about 70 percent of people 25 and older in the United States do not have a bachelor’s degree. It is clear that Tufts students worked hard in high school to earn good grades and participate in extracurricular activities. We have all been congratulated for earning our way to such a fine institution, but many of us had advantages in high school, too.
Some high school students have teachers who are energized and equipped with masters or even PhDs in their fields of teaching, while other students don’t even have Internet access at school. A student at a well-funded high school might take for granted that they have the same teacher for the whole year, rather than a series of substitutes. They might benefit from college counseling, Advanced Placement classes, and arts programs that students at other schools only dream of.
Bill Gates went to an elite private high school that started a computer club when he was an eighth-grader in 1968. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers, most colleges still lacked computers at that time. Gates was fascinated with this new machine, the computer, and practiced obsessively. He worked incredibly hard and forged a path that ultimately revolutionized our world.
But what if Gates hadn’t attended an elite school with futuristic machinery? How much credit is due to Gates’ efforts, and how much is due to the opportunities that fell in his lap?
Dr. Shameka Powell, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Tufts, used an analogy to illustrate their understanding of human agency. If we say that we steer our own cars, we do not mean we have complete control, they explained. We are limited by the existing roads, roadblocks, traffic rules, and the amount of gas in our tanks. Racism, sexism, classism, and other systems of oppression create constant roadblocks and detours for some, while others get to travel more easily. Some people hit so many obstacles that their cars break down on the side of the road. Are they to blame?
There is adversity in every human life, but some people have more relationships and funds to help them bounce back. Katherine Bennett, Executive Director of the Cambridge-based Spare Change News, said that homelessness commonly occurs when a poor working person suffers an accident, misses work, loses her job, and can’t afford to pay housing in the meantime. Once that individual becomes homeless, Bennett explained, it is harder for them to find a job. It becomes difficult to break this cycle.
Bennett knows homeless people who try to improve their situation every day, and those people amaze her. Still, many others have learned to feel helpless, and Bennett said she would likely do the same thing if walking in their shoes.
The American Dream is as motivating as it is deceptive. It encourages us to make big dreams and chase them. This attitude is currently inspiring the next generation to innovate and achieve, like Bill Gates did. At the same time, it is important that we recognize the many systems that shape our lives. When we recognize our advantages and disadvantages, we begin to empathize with one another. We stop blindly praising Gates and blaming the homeless. We see each other as relatable human beings.
Seuss concludes Oh, the Places You’ll Go! with an assurance that the reader will succeed, saying, “You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)” It is hard to justify a claim so bold, but there might be another truth in that “going places” can mean different things for different people.