“We are What We Do”: The American Dream and Education

Who are we? At the beginning of many of my classes and activities (from kindergarten to college), my teachers sometimes coerce us to introducing ourselves to others. It usually involves telling others your name and a something you do. You can share that you play a sport, an instrument, or a video game; you can tell others about a hobby or a skill; or you can introduce yourself with your job. We see each other as trumpeters, origami enthusiasts, or accountants. We define ourselves by what we do. Why?

Identity is, of course, not limited to the things that we do. We know who we are by what we look like, personal qualities and traits, memories, and stories. If someone shows you a picture of yourself, you can easily identify it as yourself. If someone asks you about what you did last summer, you can easily recall memories in order to identify the ones that you had done. But could you use impulses of motor control to identify the way you sign your name or throw a dart? We’ve always assumed that the things we do are implicitly contained within our knowledge, and, therefore, constitute who we are. The common link between perception and action has recently been explored very well through cognitive studies. Doing things might just be another part of identity this same way. Though the cognitive studies may serve a foundation for how this phenomena arises, we can explore norms and trends in history to fully understand how we are shaped by what we do.

The criteria and standards for collegiate admission might have influenced us into the norm of action as identity. As the mother prepares her three-year-old daughter for swimming lessons while picking up her middle-school son from science camp, people who dream of success know they need to do things. Academia’s use of extracurriculars as criteria have caused us to identify with those activities more. And our tremendous amount of effort we put into these sports, instruments, or any other activity makes us hold onto those extracurriculars. Regardless of our purpose, the self-identification with the activity may serve as some sort of reward (i.e., I want to call myself a “scientist” in some sense as a result of my scientific research). As a result, we wear our extracurriculars like badges. We introduce ourselves as “Hi I’m so-and-so and I play the violin!” We can achieve this “identification” when we do the things that we do. And we are pressured into activity with the fear that we don’t want to show up to work on Monday to share that you spent your weekend pondering life introspectively instead of doing something.

Land of Opportunity To Do What you Want

Taking pride in what we do might appeal to standards of free will and determinism created by American self-determination. Placing the identity in terms of what we do lends our identity to our own free will while yielding to the determinism of the activity itself. What I mean is that we choose what we do but the activity that we choose still has some predetermined value and meaning. When I tell people I’m a physics major, it appeals to the hard work I’ve put into my undergraduate career while simultaneously appealing to what we collectively, commonly associate with someone who studies physics (i.e., I’m an introverted lunatic who loves mathematics/science etc). Making action part of the identity gives us this power over who we are while conceding some of that influence to what is already established by the activity itself.

Who can deny that, as part of the American Dream, we want everyone to earn the rewards of what they do. We are promised that, as long as we work hard, there’s a chance. We all understand that it’s not possible for everyone to be rich, but it doesn’t stop us from the meritocratic understanding that we are here for the possibility. And, even as big cars and fancy houses are not always achievable, we still hold onto the credo that the hard work and determination will lead to success. These ideals lay the foundation for the beliefs that what makes us who we are is what we do.

College students are certainly no exception to the American Dream’s effects of identity with action. We spend our entire lives building ourselves up with experience as though we instantly become better people because we can simultaneously play a sport, learn a language, volunteer at a local shelter, and do well on tests. As such, we celebrate our value and identity as students as though they were determined by the things we do. We might see the things we do as value in and of themselves rather than as means to obtain the greater value within them. While it is true that one may benefit from taking part in those opportunities, it’s questionable whether or not they should be end goals in and of themselves and whether or not the value is intrinsic or extrinsic. Is this the American dream? Or have we lost sight of the purpose of the college education?

Why did I make this blog? Though my friends love creating profiles for themselves on LinkedIn, Twitter, or any similar social networking site, I preferred to abstain from succumbing my identity to the standards and stringent formats of established profiles. I wanted something that offered more freedom for me to create my own ideas, thoughts, and identity. By creating my own identity from my actions (as opposed to the discussed “action is part of identity”), I like to think it gives me more power in communicating to others. And maybe I can call myself a writer, too. 

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