With Election Day fast approaching, politicians of all stripes are invoking the American Dream -- lamenting its passing or celebrating its vitality, praising its inclusivity or bemoaning its narrowness. It has become shorthand for virtually anything and so risks meaning nothing. That would be a terrible loss.
I have a very personal connection to the American Dream. I was born in Iran and came to the United States to go to college. When the Iranian Revolution occurred, I couldn't return home. My wife and I were granted political asylum and later became U.S. citizens.
We are living examples of the American Dream -- our education was all we had in exile at first. It is one thing no one can take from you. We both became college professors and last year, I was privileged to be named president of Roosevelt University.
Roosevelt University has an equally close relationship with the American Dream. It was founded in 1945 when Edward Sparling, then the president of Central YMCA College in Chicago, resigned rather than help create a bigoted and restrictive system of racial and religious admissions quotas. Inspired by his example, the faculty and students followed him and went on to found Roosevelt University, a place dedicated to the idea that the American Dream was the birthright of all citizens, not a privileged few.
As Eleanor Roosevelt, the head of our first Board of Advisors, said, the new college would be "dedicated to the enlightenment of the human spirit."
Isn't the same idea at the heart of America itself?
That doesn't mean we shouldn't think critically about the American Dream, which has always been a work in progress.
It is aspirational, and the reality struggles to keep pace with the ideal. Various people have been excluded from the dream because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, nationality and so on. But today many of us have far greater opportunities than when Thomas Jefferson first penned his famous words claiming for Americans the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Even still, we know that while the doors of opportunity have opened wider for some, for others they have narrowed.
So, we need to think carefully about what the American Dream was, what it is and what it could be. That is why Roosevelt University is initiating an annual conference, "The American Dream Reconsidered" this week. Instead of making the American Dream into an empty symbol to serve as yet one more political talking point, I believe we must reconsider what it means to all Americans.
In 1931, James Truslow Adams formally defined the American Dream -- which many see rooted in our 1776 Declaration of Independence. But Adams, writing during the Great Depression, believed that the American Dream promoted a better life for everyone -- a "dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are capable ... regardless of the circumstances of birth or position."
Is this still a possibility? Today we have politicians who say the American Dream is dead. I disagree. We have the capability to improve the quality of life for all our people. But do we have the will? Are we ready as individual citizens and as a nation to work together to make this happen?
I believe we must strive for a country where all citizens are provided with opportunities for education, health care, safe neighborhoods and jobs. The American Dream realized can shape a safe, fulfilling and productive future for our children and grandchildren. The American Dream is not dead. It is dormant. It is up to us to revive this powerful core of our national identity and reclaim the best of our democratic legacy.