Published on 2012/02/08

Reaching The American Dream
Equal opportunity for success was a critical part of Dr. King's value system. Photo by Dick DeMarsico, available from the United States Library of Congress.

The American Dream is grounded on the idea that regardless of where you come from, you can realize your dreams in our free democracy. Martin Luther King had a dream based on a value system of being fair, respectful, honest, leading by example, and having the courage to imagine a better future for all human kind. As our nation faces a time of deep reflection about where it has been and what it should be, the question about our ability to have the innovative spirit and imagination to solve our current and future problems weigh in the ballast.

How do we instill in our nation the spirit of being the best we can be and develop our personal potential?

Perhaps the answer to part of this question can be found by reviewing some work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. He is the one who coined the term “Self-Actualization” which is the quest to become the best you can be. It involves deciding what you want from life and then doing what is necessary to get what you want. Self-actualization is an ongoing process of fully developing your personal potential.

The first thing to note about self-actualization is that it is a process not a goal. In other words, self-actualization is not something that you aim for: it is something that you do. The second thing to note is that self-actualization is not restricted to high-profile, high-achieving individuals; you don’t have to be famous to self-actualize.

According to Maslow, man has five levels of needs. He believed that man has a natural drive to healthiness, or self actualization. He believed that man’s basic (biological and psychological) needs have to be fulfilled in order to be free enough to feel the desire for the higher levels of realization.

When a person is self-actualized in one subject they can excel at everything they do, using the same method. The qualities like bonding with work colleagues, self confidence, responsibility, integrity, innovation and leadership don’t need to be taught – they come naturally to a self-actualized person. A person who has experienced this higher awareness will find no happiness in living only with short term pleasures. As Dr. King imagined, our nation should be a place where individuals are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Our educational system is at risk of stripping our youth from reaching their full potential by implementing policies and mandates to meet target test scores. Where did we lose the means to also measure the character and values of our students? Does that matter anyone? Of course it does.

Our nation’s leaders could learn from the lessons of Dr. King and Maslow. A self-actualized and healthy person needs the full use their talents, capacities, and potentialities. Unfortunately, our leaders in Washington are unable to harness the talents of each other because of their allegiance to their political party and not the people they represent. They have failed to realize self-actualization is not a static state. It is an ongoing process in which one’s capacities are fully, creatively, and joyfully utilized.

This may be the answer to the question of how develop our personal potential… or at least it is a start.

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Readers Comments

Simon Lang 2012/02/08 at 11:32 am

Interesting — so you’re saying standardized testing leads to a lack of creativity in our society?

I suppose I agree on principle, but practically speaking, how can we assess the abilities of students to move forward in their education without the ability to test and rank them against one another?

Shaul Kuper 2012/02/08 at 6:15 pm


I think you raise a very good point. Lifelong learners have been clamoring to have their life and work experiences “measured” and counted towards their learning outcomes. Why not include traits which we as a society value? It may even make the world a better place. Imagine that!

Yancy Oshita 2012/02/09 at 8:44 am

Regarding the question of “how do we instill in our nation the spirit of being the best,” there are certainly no shortage of social theories, assessment approaches or legislative ideas. So I’ll take a different view and say the first thing we can do is re-instill the log cabin myth. My mother immigrated from a war-torn country where all political parties were dissolved, but believed America was about guaranteed opportunity (not outcome) and perservered to achieve her American Dream. Thanks for provoking thought, Ed.

Edward 2012/02/11 at 10:43 am

Great comment. In the UC System we have moved to holistic review. This approach includes standardized tests but also includes other factors for admission consideration. Thus far, our admission reviewers have commented favorable.

Luis Abeyta 2012/02/11 at 11:17 am

Insightful and thought-provoking.

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