The idea of America was to create a meritocracy where a person’s wealth, social status, gender, race or class would not be impediments to success — where a person’s ambition and accomplishments determine one’s position in the society. In the United States, the meritocracy was coined the “American Dream.” The American novelist Horatio Alger captured the essence of the concept in how one can move from “rags-to-riches.” Alger wrote over one hundred novels, most of which were about young people struggling to rise out of poverty and succeeding against adversity. In Alger’s iconic novel “Ragged Dick,” a homeless 14-year-old transforms himself from being a disheveled shoeshine boy into becoming a respectable clerk. Dick’s metamorphosis comes through honesty, humility, perseverance and self-reliance, and a desire to improve himself through education. The aspirations in Alger’s novels are often referred to as the “myth of Horatio Alger” because the goal of meritocracy has not yet been achieved on an universal scale. Nevertheless, America is replete with Ragged Dick stories. We have a local one here in Central Oregon.
Les Schwab (1917-2007) of Bend, Oregon, was orphaned at 15, fought in WWII and worked for the local newspaper while living in a rooming house and attending high school. After the war in 1952, Schwab borrowed $11,000 to purchase a small tire shop. He knew nothing about tires and, reputedly, never even had changed a flat tire before starting his tire business. He built the company up from a modest establishment with one employee to a $3 billion company with over 7,000 employees working in 492 tire stores. For over 50 years, Schwab and family have given back to the community of Central Oregon by donating to the local Little League, rodeos, city parks and the local hospital. In the tradition of Horatio Alger, Schwab became successful without compromising integrity and honesty and without forgetting his humble beginnings and the society that fostered his entrepreneurship. He married his high school sweetheart and they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary before Les’ passing in 2007. Horatio Alger would be proud to know that there were some true-life people like Les Schwab in the tradition of his Ragged Dick.
The American dream of social mobility was practiced not only by people named Dick, but many named Abhijit, Ricardo, Moshe, Selma and Alessandro — immigrants or the children of them. Many foreigners came to America with no assets except a strong work ethic and one key attribute: a desperate drive to take risks. Those who risked getting to the U.S. eventually took risks as entrepreneurs. They became the shopkeepers, pipe fitters and machinists who built America. They are what economists call “highly motivated workers” and they complemented highly skilled workers to make an integrated workforce. Immigrants excelled not because the Jews, Italians or Irish who immigrated were smarter than others, but because they self-selected in not being averse to daunting challenges. They also held a belief in a dream — an idea of America where one did not have to be of noble birth or inherited wealth to succeed.
Horatio Alger might be a myth for the homeless or those living in the inner-city ghetto or rural Appalachia and others who are marginalized and disenfranchised. But we should not give up on this ideal. As Robert Browning encouraged us, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?” It is our responsibility as a society to remove roadblocks to those who aspire to reach for the American dream, including those who wish to immigrate here and contribute or to Les Schwabs of the world who benefited from a free public education system and strive to improve their station in life. The democratization of education is key to overcoming societal obstacles that keep some in an underprivileged position. We should reach for meritocracy. Who knows? We might just grasp it someday.
The democratization of education is key to overcoming societal obstacles that keep some in an underprivileged position. We should reach for meritocracy. Who knows? We might just grasp it someday.