Heroes, The American Dream & Education

Reading a book by Richard Foster recently, I was reflecting on the heroes of our contemporary age. The author pointed out that the modern hero, especially in the United States, is “a poor boy who voluntarily becomes rich instead of a rich boy who voluntarily becomes poor.” In other words, the life of sacrifice and simplicity for a great cause is rarely pointed out or elevated in our culture unless it leads to fame, fortune or success. Consider the following challenge. Take 60 seconds to write down as many people as you can think of who went from little or an ordinary life to great fame and fortune. Think of both historical and contemporary characters. Now take 60 seconds to write down as many people as you can think of who voluntarily went from fame and/or fortune to a life of poverty or intense sacrifice for the sake of others. Which list is longer? Try this out with a group of young people as well.

Of course, there are many reasons why one list is longer than the other, but most of us do not know much about those people who passed on a great deal of material and financial trappings for the sake of a worthwhile cause or calling. Few of us dream of our children passing on a solid financial situation (even if it is just a solid middle class fortune) for a good cause that is likely to put one in a humble position. In the media, we see parents and children brought to tears when they see their dream of fame and fortune drawing near. And, of course, the media doesn’t capture much about those who elect to live a different way. Most of us probably had Mother Theresa and a few religious people on our list of those who opted for poverty or simplicity, but my guess is that our collective list from the 60 second challenge would have the wealthy outnumbering the other by quite a bit.

I’ve written many articles about self-directed learning on this blog, and I often argue that it is important because it promotes human agency, a growing capacity to act and have a measure of control over one’s path in life. However, this should not be confused with advocacy for the path to wealth and comfort. I contend that agency must also be combined with a clear sense of purpose and calling, and those may lead each of us in wildly different life journeys. Some callings may well result in significant recognition and financial benefits, but I contend that the calling and purpose should be in the driver’s seat.

Media outlets are likely to elevate those who are recognized and wealthy, but learning organizations have an opportunity to invite young people into discovering a wider spectrum of life paths, ones that include those that lead people to humble circumstances with along the rags to riches stories that often get the spotlight.





Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

One Reply to “Heroes, The American Dream & Education”

  1. DrEvel1

    I was just watching an interesting History Channel thing about billionaires, and they pointed out the interesting fact that almost all of the people on the billionaire list started out poor and made their money themselves rather than inheriting it. There are some inherited billionaires (like the Sam Walton heirs), but not many. Inherited wealth tends to be concentrated in the mere hundreds of millions. Getting into the actual billionaire ranks requires owning a corporation that does awesome things, which implies at the very least that the billionaires are pretty good choosers of talent.

    Some of them are of course the ones who won the employment lottery by doing things like getting hired by Facebook as employee #9. My college roommate was in this category; he got picked up early on by a little company called Autodesk, and became their head of administration. Basically, that meant that he got to do everything non-technical in the company, since it was run by engineers. So he also got a liberal dose of vested shares when they went public. All he has is some tens of millions, buy it’s not too shabby for his retirement years. Unfortunately, instead of meeting some fun engineers in a startup, I staggered into academia instead, so now my retirement is more likely to feature shopping carts and tin cups full of pencils than catered martinis. And we staggered out of college together 50 years ago. Amazing what the lottery of life brings!

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