Shelving the dream

Dina Strasser’s daughter wants to start a bakery that serves pie and gumbo. “You can do whatever you want,” she told her. But that’s not true, Strasser writes in Shelving My American Dream.

She works as an English teacher. Her husband is a minister, who has little hope of finding work outside the South or Midwest. Her brother is mentally disabled. Her mother is widowed.

In June of this year, I turned down the most prestigious scholarship for doctoral work that my local, nationally recognized university had to offer. It was as generous as you could hope for: full tuition, opportunities for stipends and grants. The gracious professors there, and others who helped me with my applications, spent hours of their own time walking me through the process, writing recommendations; they said, to wit, you were born to be a Ph.D. And I knew it, because I had figured that out for myself in third grade. It was the only lifelong dream I have ever had.

Strasser would need “exquisite mobility to find the kind of rapidly dwindling tenure-track job required to support my family, most of which were located in places best described as not in the South or Midwest,” she decided. Instead, she will “stay in a related job that pays double the national average with good benefits, in a decent school district, with marriage and family healthy and happy, in a big blue colonial.”

Yet she wonders what to tell her daughter and son about their dreams. “It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. It’s not even something will work out.”

She hasn’t figured it out.

Going for a PhD is “risky business,” writes Fredrick deBoer. “I tell people– if you can imagine doing literally anything else, do that instead.” However, “mocking graduate students . . .  features a lot of weirdness about risk, choice, and other people’s lives in late capitalism.”

About Joanne


  1. This is what I (mostly) say to my kid about this (not necessarily in this order):


    1) You can’t do anything you want.


    2) You can, however, accomplish a lot more than you might think.


    3) But a lot of these accomplishments are very expensive in terms of what you give up to get them.


    4) And a lot of the time, you have to pay the price for the accomplishment without knowing whether you will actually achieve what you want.


    5) Your life has a finite number of hours, so choose carefully.


    As an example, my child probably can’t be a professional, major league, baseball player. Very few folks have the raw physical talent to do so. He certainly cannot be a jockey (he doesn’t have the build).


    But … that doesn’t mean that he can’t play on a high school (or maybe college team).


    This level of performance is going to require a *LOT* of work … there are lots of other kids who want to do this, too, and some have more physical talent than he does. And many of them are willing to spend a lot of hours at this.


    The hours spent practicing baseball are not spent on other things (e.g. playing with friends) … and you can’t make a straight-up bargain: so many hours of practice means I make the team.


    So it *really* helps to enjoy that thing you are working at. Then if you don’t make your dream, the time was hopefully not wasted.


    One question I always like to think about around Olympics time: Was all the years and hours of practice for something like gymnastics “worth it” to the kid who got cut from the team last?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      A wise answer, Ms. Strasser. Tell her that. One of the great truths of existence is that you can’t avoid trade-offs.

      Only fairy tales give us “happily ever after.”

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        So, she want’s to pursue a Phd but wasn’t aware that life and adulthood require compromise, particularly when it comes to family vs. personal and professional interests?

        Truly the best and brightest (sarcasm).

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          To be fair to the Strassers, there is a fairly pervasive feeling in the education business that people who pursue a career in that business shouldn’t have to make trade-offs. To the extent that trade-offs exist, “society” should get rid of them.

  2. Fairy tales are mainly true. They wouldn’t end “happily ever after” if they focused on careers. They’re more profound than that. They focus on marriage and family and love. The real things.

    Someone who walked away from that for a credential is something of a lost soul, I imagine.

  3. There are a couple of ways to look at this. You could say that the whole notion of doing whatever you want or having whatever you want is inherently selfish. (And not satisfying– for example all the women who bought the feminist line in the 70s and abandoned their husbands and kids in order to “find themselves” — as if one finds oneself in isolation). On the other hand, when it came down to it, she did do what she wanted. She chose her family. Which would be even better if she weren’t whining about it.

  4. Full tuition and the support of her husband…what’s the harm in starting and seeing where it leads? New ideas, new dreams, new ah-hahs? Perhaps the dream would have happily shelved itself if the experience wasn’t what she’d built it up to be. So much easier to give up, shelve it, and regret it. “Energy and Persistence alter all things.” Benjamin Franklin.