By Isabella Donnelly
Individualism, which emphasizes one’s ability to govern his or her own life, has come to be recognized as a cornerstone of American society. It serves as an ideological lens through which Americans come to know a sense of empowerment and agency. While the internalization of individualism has the potential to spur innovation, it also carries many negative implications that demand our attention. As a society, we must analyze the ways in which an individual’s life chances are influenced by institutional barriers. While individualism can benefit some, it is necessary that we acknowledge the ways in which the least privileged members of our society are crippled by its pervasiveness.
The notion of equal opportunity is an essential component of how we understand individualism. Many of us accept the widely espoused notion that all Americans have the same chance to achieve success. However, this concept is complicated by societal barriers that perpetuate inequality in the U.S. The reality is that each individual life is affected by a vast number of factors which are beyond one’s control. Something as arbitrary as the city in which one is born has the potential to determine one’s opportunity for upward mobility. We should not completely minimize the power one has over his or her own fate, but it is worth acknowledging that some institutions put less affluent Americans at a disadvantage.
While we tend to think of schools as institutions that teach children the necessary skills to achieve success, the degree to which a child benefits from attending school is largely contingent on the quality of their public school district. Since the majority of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes, their quality is often determined by the affluence of the surrounding community. Thus, children who are born in affluent communities automatically have better chances for prosperity than students who work just as hard in under-resourced schools, and individual hard work and merit are not sufficient for obtaining success in the U.S.
Disparities between public schools is just one of many examples of how an individual’s quality of life is shaped by systemic inequalities, yet as a society, we continue to overlook these structural factors and assume the lower class is less capable, less motivated or less intelligent. This cultivates a sense of superiority and entitlement among the upper class, while poorer Americans internalize the concept that their lack of upward mobility is a direct result of their inferiority.
While it would be neither feasible nor beneficial to completely eradicate individualism from American society, further discourse on institutional barriers could better inform us about how prosperity can be attained in the U.S.
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