The United States: A Culture of Improvement

The most interesting thing that I learned in this class concerns the origin of the principle of self-improvement. Self-help books, do-it-yourself guides, and self-improvement manuals all have become a ubiquitous part of Modern American culture since the founding of the United States. It entails a sense of human agency, a freedom to shape ourselves into the people we want to be.

In class, we saw the beginning of this phenomenon with Benjamin Franklin and his autobiography. In it, he describes the process by which he created success for himself. Two of his methods, in particular, stand out to me. One is the list of virtues, which he actively shapes his behavior around to best meet the ideals. And the other is the schedule he makes for himself. Both of these he uses in his quest for perfection and both have been heavily utilized since then.

Echoes of Franklin’s work can be seen in several of the readings we have done since, as well as in sources outside those we looked at in class. While Frederick Douglass certainly never had a chance to read Franklin’s autobiography before escaping slavery, the methods he employed to escape are similar to those Franklin utilized in his success. Douglass realized he was a person capable of being and doing much more than the life of slave allowed. In realizing this potential he actively worked towards improving his situation, which in his case meant freedom. Arguably, the most important step in accomplishing this was teaching himself to read and write, which is by all means a huge self-improvement project. Success in this allowed him to hold onto his dream of freedom, which eventually led to his escape.

Another dreamer that shared the vision of self-improvement was James Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As Nick relates Gatsby’s story in Chapter 6 he notes that Gatsby’s imagination could not accept the unsuccessful farm people that his parents were. They did not match up with his own dreams of success. After Gatsby’s death, his dad shows Nick the “schedule” he had made for himself when he was a young man, which gives an outline of days filled with a series of self-improving activities very similar to that of Franklin’s own. Whereas in the case of Franklin and Douglass the improvement leads to real good, we see that in Gatsby’s case the outcome is much more morbid. His fantasy world shatters, and all his bootlegger wealth and success cannot stand up to the force of Tom Buchanan’s violent world. Is this an example of self-improvement as a sort of a fantasy?

Beyond the literature we read in class, two works that follow the principle of self-improvement and have also been hugely popular are Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Both of these books are presented as ways to improve a person to have better success in the business world and in their personal world, and each discusses strategies and guidelines in accomplishing these goals. How To Win Friends and Influence People gives a series of maxims to hold to in a number or different circumstances, offering the best chance at obtaining the results you want. As the name implies, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People offers the same sort of improvement list, although presented in a much more methodical way, as Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues. The idea here is that by following the methodology presented in these books, one can find the same level, or imagined level, of satisfaction that successful or effective people have. The fact that these texts, printed 148 and 201 years (respectively) after Franklin’s death, still hold to many of the same principles is a testament to the lasting influence of Franklin and his Autobiography in American culture.

But to what extent are people able to actually improve their lives with self-improvement? As we saw with Gatsby, self-improvement does not always have a happy ending. Sure he had a nice house, car, lots of really cool shirts, and threw big fancy parties, but would we really say Gatsby’s life was improved by his ambition and success? In the end he dies alone, having lost the love of his life, and nobody comes to his funeral. The only person who actually cares is his father, and that’s the thing he tried to “improve” from in the first place. Obviously the cases of Franklin and Douglass are different, but those two are among the most exceptional people in American history, both having a certain natural advantage over their fellow man. Something we might call genetic gifts nowadays.

In my philosophy class a few weeks ago we read an article by Galen Strawson entitled The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility. His premise is that we act based on how we are but how we are is necessarily traced back to factors and conditions outside of our control. He argues from this that no one can truly be held morally responsible for any action they commit. However, I think it can also apply to how we view the effectiveness of self-improvement. If ultimately our actions are determined by something outside our control, then how could self-improvement help? Or what if those who seek self-improvement do so because they naturally are the type of person who seeks to make themselves excel? To what extent does the nurturing of self-improvement counteract the natural tendencies we all have? Are our innate predispositions in some case too much for it to overcome?

– Christian K.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Great Gatsby.” The University of Adelaide (Library). 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.


4 thoughts on “The United States: A Culture of Improvement

  1. This is the second course I’ve taken at UW that analyzed Franklin’s autobiography, the first time being in an Educational Policy Studies class about the history of American education. One of the things we discussed in that class was how Franklin’s theory of self-improvement became a common way of understanding the “American Dream”: those who work the hardest and hold themselves to the highest moral standards will achieve their goals. In essence, Franklin seems to suggest that those who do not achieve their goals have a moral defect or do not work hard enough.

    This has far-reaching impacts on the ways that we decide to build or not build a social safety net for poor or working class Americans and our attitudes towards educating low-income youth. We see the echoes of Franklin’s assertions in modern American society, and there is political traction on the far right conservative political spectrum to characterize poor people as being lazy and purposefully remaining below federal poverty lines to take advantage of welfare programs. Franklin’s theory of self-improvement draws on what educational policy critics call a “deficit theory,” where we begin with weaknesses rather than strengths. While this may be an altruistic way of recognizing weaknesses and setting goals towards making improvements, there are some challenges in the lives of Americans that are not the result of personal weaknesses. We must use Franklin’s theory of self-improvement selectively.

  2. I agree with Cody: it’s easy for Franklin’s theory of self-improvement to fall apart in certain situations, and not only because it casts socioeconomically disadvantaged people in an unflattering light and because it assumes people begin with weaknesses rather than strengths. Another way in which Franklin’s theory of self-improvement is problematic is that it assumes a universal ideal and it assumes that people who do not live up to this ideal have failed. Desirable traits are defined quite differently, though, in American culture than in other cultures. In the United States, for example, we place a premium upon the ability to do things quickly and to multitask, whereas in other cultures, including that of Italy, a premium is placed upon setting aside much more time for activities like eating and napping that we might deem less productive. Socioeconomic disadvantage sometimes has to do with a person having strengths that lie outside of our culture’s ideal, and defining people who have not succeeded economically in our culture as failures suggests a lack of insight into the differences in how different personality types achieve.

    Christian mentioned that Galen Strawson holds that no one can be held ultimately morally responsible because their actions are predicated on outside factors. This is an idea I’ve contemplated before; it often comes up as an objection, for example, to claims made by many organized religions that people who do not adhere to that specific religion are hell-bound. I find Strawson’s idea compelling: very often, someone learns to react to a situation in a given way before he or she is old enough to even form a memory of the day when he or she learned it. But there could be a problem of motivation if we were to accept Strawson’s idea fully as a society: fewer people would be concerned with avoiding doing inconsiderate things, because there would be less pressure in the form of being held responsible by others. It’s almost as if we need the unrealistic idea that people are always morally responsible for what they do to motivate ourselves without applying the same idea to others. Ultimately, saying that no one is morally responsible for what they do is probably too simple; so too is saying that everyone is responsible for everything they do. Human beings are simply too complicated.

  3. I really like the idea that there might be something innate in some of us that makes self-improvement efforts futile (if I understand Christian’s point correctly). I also wonder what those ‘factors’ are that could determine our predispositions; is the issue societal, humanly natural?

    We certainly get different perspectives on this issue in some of the texts we read. For instance, Christian mentions Gatsby as a figure whose self-improvement efforts yield failure. I think we can safely say that society predisposed him to fail in certain ways; he is denied access to Daisy and ultimately the world of East Egg because of his impoverished background. However, a huge reason Gatsby and Daisy are not able to be together is because of the means by which he made his money; he is a bootlegger, and this says something about his moral character. This presents an interesting question: Does Gatsby’s flawed moral character predispose him for failure and society must justly punish him for this, or does society predispose him for failure because immoral means seem to be the only route offered Gatsby to rise in status? I also wonder if Gatsby did ultimately fail, though. True, he and Daisy never marry, and the means by which he became wealthy are objectionable, but he improved himself based on his own standards. He achieved everything else on his to-do list and seemed to have some hope before his death that he might still get Daisy, too. His success or failure simply depends on whose standards of self-improvement we hold him to: his or ours.

    This presents another interesting idea: are ideals for self-improvement individual? universal? national? Benjamin Franklin certainly seems to think they are at least natural if not universal. His self-improvement doctrine is intended for the general American audience. He does not seem to advocate case-by-case self-improvement practices whose standards vary based on wealth, gender, etc. He does not sympathize with individuals at a disadvantage (as Christian points out). Franklin would not likely have cut Gatsby slack because he started off poor. He would probably view Gatsby as a failure because he did not actually marry Daisy, and the means by which he gained wealth were morally unacceptable. Franklin’s viewpoint is thus highly unsympathetic, but it does challenge and inspire us because it expects more of us and encourages us to demand more of ourselves on moral and social levels.

  4. Very thoughtful post Christian. It’s a good habit to consider a variety of different perspectives when considering these issues. Cody’s response really gets at the core of the lasting significance of Franklin’s perspective on self improvement. As professor Steele noted in lecture, these concepts inspired the TEA party movement that has become a significant part of our political environment. These concepts sound great when first reading them, and in many ways they are. Franklin gives an entire list of habits that, if established, will positively impact a person’s life. But to insist that these types of methods have the potential to eliminate the need for welfare programs is a mistake. Everyone begins life at a different starting point. Some people are privileged, and others are not. The question becomes how deep of a hole can you dig for a person, and then reasonably expect him to climb out of it.
    I volunteer for Dane County CASA, a program that matches volunteers with troubled youths. I am not allowed to discuss any specifics of my particular case, but I can tell you with certainty that the young man I mentor is at a disadvantage; a big disadvantage. Implementing Franklin’s qualities into his own life is a much more difficult than someone who was raised with a more stable background. While people do need to take some degree of personal responsibility for their actions, we must not forget that for some, achieving “the American Dream” is more difficult than for others.

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