Diversity and Democracy

Deconstructing the American Dream through Global Learning

The “American Dream,” although still a robust component of national mythology, is not a universal reality. Encouraging students to recognize that social and economic inequalities often impede personal success is a crucial first step in educating for social justice. As college teachers, we discovered that if we wanted to urge students toward fully conscious and principled engagement in the U.S., we would have to incorporate global learning into our coursework. We put our minds and efforts together to create a learning community that pursues U.S. social justice through global learning outcomes. Combining first-year composition and United States history, we called our class The American Dream: Myth or Reality?

Interrogating Systemic Injustice

We felt that a pedagogy based on global learning outcomes would free us from traditional curricular constraints. Instead of pursuing content and competencies, we focused on critiquing systems and structures of injustice.

We began our pursuit of the global learning outcomes by asking students to explore “historical legacies” on personal, local, and global levels. Students wrote poems about their family histories to examine their inherited socioeconomic identities. Students then made plaster masks to create physical manifestations of the identities they expressed in their poems. While wearing the masks, they performed their poems in class. This exercise encouraged students to better understand their own socioeconomic and cultural identities, thus preparing them to engage as unique individuals with others of diverse identities and backgrounds.

We took this preparation outside of the classroom to encourage students to “engage in actions to sustain and preserve communities.” We wanted the class to experience civic engagement while understanding the true meaning of poverty statistics. To accomplish this goal, we visited St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix. Students learned about poverty in Arizona while bagging pears that would be given to those in need.

Building on these first two activities, we explored the historical development of industrial capitalism. We asked how people become impoverished, focusing particularly on capitalism’s potential to exploit people both inside and outside the U.S. By studying the inequalities created by global capitalism, students “acquired interdisciplinary knowledge of global problems” and “developed a heightened sense of global interconnectedness.”

We pressed onward to relate personal privilege with “understanding diverse cultures.” We explored notions of privilege and power by reading Alan Johnson’s Race, Privilege and Power and by inviting a trained facilitator—the Maricopa Community College District’s diversity coordinator—to lead a “privilege walk” and a diversity panel. In the privilege walk, students stood in a horizontal line and responded to statements like, “If you ever had to rely on public transportation, take a step back.” Through the diversity panel, students heard personal stories about how race, class, gender, and ability have affected the opportunities of individuals.

Following these exercises, we asked students to imagine how others judge them. Although we framed these discussions in terms of socioeconomic identity, race undeniably came to the forefront of our discussions. Some students resisted historical analyses and claimed that individuals create their own problems. Nonetheless, we felt that our discussions about race and privilege enabled the students to see themselves as participants in systems, both national and global, that do not confer privilege and agency equally on all peoples. Discussions about U.S. diversity, then, were crucial to understanding global systemic injustice.

As we led students to reexamine their preconceived notions, we ultimately turned to Paul Farmer’s notion of “structural violence.” Farmer uses structural violence “as a broad rubric that includes a host of offensives against human dignity: extreme and relative poverty, social inequalities ranging from racism to gender inequality, and the more spectacular forms of violence that are uncontestedly human rights abuses” (2005, 8). We asked students to write essays in response to this notion. Thus students examined how “suffering is ‘structured’ by historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces that conspire—whether through routine, ritual, or as is more commonly the case, the hard surfaces of life—to constrain human agency” (2005, 40).

By critiquing social structures through these global learning exercises, we engaged students in transformative learning. This groundwork prepared us to move beyond analysis to participatory civic engagement.

Global Learning Outcomes

The principles of global learning help us educate students to be good citizens, working for social and economic justice whether in the U.S. or abroad. Our global learning outcomes include the following:

  • Understand and appreciate the complexity and richness of diverse cultures around the world.
  • Acquire interdisciplinary knowledge of the world’s social, environmental and economic problems.
  • Develop a heightened sense of global interconnections and interdependence.
  • Explore the historical legacies that have created the dynamics and tensions in the world.
  • Learn how to engage in deliberative dialogue about global issues, even when there might be a clash of views.
  • Engage in actions to sustain and preserve communities and the environment for future generations.

Educating for Agency

We designed our course to help students understand the structural constraints to human agency. Yet we also wanted students to know that people can influence and change structures. Focusing on the global learning outcome “engaging in actions to sustain and preserve communities and the environment for future generations,” we created a final group research project that connected our interrogation of the American Dream to the global community.

Groups of three to five students researched an issue related to social justice and took some sort of action in response to that issue. One group planted a tree on campus and asked passersby to pledge to do one thing to promote sustainability, documenting responses through writing and photographs. One student group raised over $700 to help build a well in Kenya, and another raised over $400 for the Invisible Children project in Uganda. Through fundraising, they increased awareness about global issues.

This final project may have been the most important part of the class. In classroom presentations about their projects, students linked their studies, their actions, the course themes, and the global learning outcomes. Thus they illustrated Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, “Knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge.”

The Lessons of Global Learning

Our focus on global learning outcomes helped students engage in transformative learning related not only to global contexts, but also to U.S. diversity and civic engagement. We found that by incorporating our college’s global learning requirements into a course on U.S. pluralism, we navigated students’ resistance to transformative learning. Indeed, our method helped us pursue what might be the most difficult of our global learning outcomes by teaching students “how to engage in deliberative dialogue about global issues, even when there might be a clash of views.” Given the successes we observed, we are pleased to be offering the course again in fall 2007 with a new title that we feel more accurately describes our focus: Show me the Money!: Industrial Capitalism and Human Agency.

Ultimately, when given free reign to construct their final projects, most student groups focused on global sustainability or poverty outside the U.S. Still, we feel that civic engagement work in the context of global learning was a step towards deliberative dialogue about U.S. diversity issues, including the topics of immigration and white privilege. Promisingly, we found that this was a step our students were able to take. As they analyzed their own positions in the U.S., they showed potential to become better global citizens whose future actions will promote social and economic justice.


Farmer, P. 2005. Pathologies of power: Health, human rights, and the new war on the poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Editor’s Note: Chris Schnick and Paul Petrequin are members of the AAC&U Shared Futures team for global learning in general education.

Chris Schnick is a professor of English and faculty development coordinato; Paul Petrequin is a professor of history and chair of the Global Learning Committee—both at Chandler Gilbert Community College.

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