Ambition, the desire to get AHEAD, to improve one's circumstances, is a central value of an open society. In rejecting the monarchical, aristocratic European cultures, the United States has emphasized equality,not of status or income, but of opportunity. Americans, more than any other peoples, have been brought up to believe that every person, regardless ofsocial origins, should have a chance to get ahead, that status should reflect achievement, not family background.
Sociologists seeking to explain the relatively high crime rate here have attributed it, in large part, to the presumed greater American stress on mobility. For where people feel that success is open to all, lack of success is experienced as personal failure. And those who find it difficult to succeed through legitimate means are driven to use illegitimate ones.
Joseph Epstein, the learned editor of The American Scholar , argues in this volume that ambition is no longer in high repute, that the American value system has changed. He notes:
"If one feels the stirrings of ambition, it is on the whole best to keep them hidden. To say of a young man or woman that he or she is ambitious is no longer as it once was, aclear compliment. Rather the reverse. aA person called ambitious is likely to arouse anxiety . . . Energy is still valued, so too is competence, but ambition is in bad repute. And perhaps nowhere more than in America."
Drawing on literary as well as socialscience findings, Epstein seeks to demonstrate that we no longer celebrate the driven achiever, that "ambition is increasingly associated in the public mind chiefly with human characteristics held to be despicable. . . . The ambitious person is generally thought tobe single-minded, narrowly concentrated in purpose, bereft of such distracting qualities as charm, sympathy, imagination, or introspection of the kind that leads to self-doubt."
The degradation of ambition, of money-making, particularly among the well-educated classes, has resulted in large numbers consciously choosing to be "downwardly mobile." This has become "a deliberate strategy on the part of young adults." Those who follow this path "have been given to believe that both the struggle and the rewards are atthe bottom fraudulent."
There can be little doubt that Epstein is correct in pointing to the existence of a group of "children of theprospous middle classes who choose not to compete for success." But unfortunately, neither novelists nor social scientists can supply an evaluation of whether this is a new or even proportionately larger phenomenon.
The novels and biographies, which Epstein examines, tell us how people sought to get ahead in the past, of the rewards and also of the painful experiences involved in such activities.Popular adages in various cultures speak to the fact of downward mobility; "shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in threegenerations," seems a common one. The making of money has always been viewed as a vulgar activity by the scions of those who made it a generation or more back. As Thorstein Veblen demonstrated in his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class , privileged classes have traditionally deprecated activities associated with upward mobility.
Some children of the vulgar, of the money-makers, have always rejected materialistic values and occupations. At best, such disassociation has taken the form of following cultural, political and scholarly occupations, removed from the marketplace. At worse, it has been reflected in the pursuit of hedonism, of engaging in pleasurable non-creative activities.
The affluent young have repeatedly included some who reject the privileged position to which they were born and join the ranks of the cultural and political radicals. Wealthy 19th century Russian youth constituted the narodniki, who went to the peasantry, seeking to educate and activate them. In the United States, the settlement house movement of the turn of the 20th century was based on similar groups and sentiments.
The modern age differs from the past in the sheer numbers of those born to affluence. And these well-to-do young provide the constituencies for varying behaviors. Educated within the part ofthe system of higher education that mo most disdains money-making and capitalism, the liberal arts, they provide the recruits for various forms of anti-business, anti-achievement activity.
But at the same time, the processes which have fueled upward mobility continue. The period from World War II to the present has probably witnessed more success stories, of the type glorified by Horatio Alger, than any previous one in American or westernhistory. The number of American millionaires is absolutely and proportionately greater than ever before. Sociological surveys of mass mobility patterns also reveal greater upward movement than in the past.
A study in 1964 conducted by Mabel Newcomer revealed the highest proportion of the American corporate elite from "poor" social origins ever documented. The percentage of those from economically "poor" backgrounds in the top echelons of American business rose from 12.1 in 1950 to 23.3 in 1964. Andrew Greeley has documented the progress made by non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Nordic ethnic groups. Those of recent immigrant background do better economically than persons of old American stock.
In seeking to explain why Jews and various Catholic ethnics are better off than the descendants of old-stock Protestants, Greeley suggests that a phenomenon of "over thrust" of "over compensation" is at work. The members of a less privileged, lower-status group"that 'makes it' in American society does so with such tremendous energy and such tremendous 'need for achievement,' that they do not only do so as well as everyone else, but better because of the sheer, raw power of their elemental drive for respectability and success." In line with this analysis, studies of blacks indicate that they are more optimistically ambitious than whites. A survey of attitudes of black youth (ages 18-29) conducted for Ebony magazine in 1978 reported, according to Ebony : "Fully 58% of them say they will be far better off in terms of work and career ten years from now; another 32% feel they will be somewhat better off than they are today." As Ebony described their mood, "economically oriented, they are an optimistic, pragmatic and materialist group.
Joseph Epstein deserves our gratitude for his sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of changing attitudes about achievement in America. His concern about the seeming decline in the positive values of ambition, however, would have been alleviated had he looked at the continued drive of the less privileged and the characteristics of the growing numbers of those who are currently successful.