Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 3)

In parts 1 and 2, I answered the question of where these ideas came from. In this post, I describe how these core values, the DNA of American character, spread.


How core values spread in society

The values of individualism, equal opportunity, and community have shaped American views of achieving success and avoiding failure for the past two centuries. They are transmitted through various democratic institutions such as businesses, political parties, sports, religious groups, media, families, and schooling. All have had influence in defining individual and group success and in shaping the flow and exercise of these values in daily affairs.


Consider that in a market-based economy where citizens are expected to buy many products, competition reigns and the consumer is king. And each individual king has to know what is out there. America is (and has been) a land of abundance where hundreds of television channels, scores of cereals, dozens of car models, and seasonally fashionable clothes compete for consumers’ attention. Ads aim to capture consumer eyeballs and open wallets.

Individuals buy products to bolster their health (e.g., prescriptions for everything from constipation to multiple sclerosis), enhance physical appearance (e.g., skin creams that get rid of wrinkles and treatments that grow hair on bald pates), satisfy different tastes in entertainment (e.g., vampire and horror flicks to Bambi to family sit-coms) and increase social status (e.g., moving from a studio apartment to a two-bedroom house). Ads, then, pervade television channels, print and social media seeking a nanosecond of consumers’ attention in a cut-throat economy.

Sure, the value of individual choice reigns in the ad world but equal opportunity has become more present as well. Anyone over the age of 40 has noted that ads asking consumers to buy particular products have become racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse in recent decades. Black, Latino, Asian, and gay adults announce the most recent drug for diabetes, hair shampoo, and automobile. Corporate ads displaying inter-racial couples and families  using their products announce that they are equal opportunity vendors who reinforce the diversity that America has always been but now is recognized and fought over by companies.

If most ads cater to individual health, looks, entertainment preferences, and social status, there are also occasional ads that ring consumer bells to engage with their community. The restaurant chain, Chilis, for example ran a clutch of ads a few years ago showing fathers and daughters talking over burgers, a party welcoming a returning soldier, people helping others after a natural disaster.

Ads, then, transmit core American values to the reading and viewing public.


Consider Little League to professional baseball where individuals shine as individual all-stars and, at the same time, as team-mates fighting to win games. Both individual and community matter in achieving success or experiencing failure.

Since the integration of professional sports after World War II, individual merit has come to count more than skin color,  ethnicity, religion, geography or who one knows. Teams compete to win football games, lead the league, and get into the Super Bowl. Team work glows when two basketball players do a pick-and-roll to make a three pointer or a short stop scoops up a grounder and throws to the second baseman who rifles it to first for a double play to end the inning and the game. Individuals cooperate to win a game.

And when a team from Cleveland, Boston, New York, or Houston wins the national championship be it in baseball, basketball, or football, the city celebrates as a community proud and joyous in the victory.

Yet parents and sports fans do worry about  athletes using dope to enhance their performance in, for example, football, baseball and competitive bicycling. Concerns over professional and non-professional individuals and teams cheating and too much emphasis on winning at all costs leading to compromised individual athletes who are expected to be moral examples.

Even with these deep concerns on the part of the public, in football, soccer, and basketball working together as a team, representing a city or region and performing as an individual are sides of the same coin in sports as well as America. All are important.

Sports at all levels from sandlot to professional, then, have embedded within them the core American values of individualism, equal opportunity, and community.

And here is where schools enter the picture as another social institution not only reflecting the larger culture but also as a tax-supported organization expected to transmit and instill those all-important core values.

The final post of this series describes how schooling reflects those deeply American values and reinforces national definitions of success and failure.





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4 responses to “Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 3)

  1. Stacye Tysarczyk Walsh

    I can’t wait for more!

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