The American public has been subjected to a seemingly endless stream of books, articles and commentaries on the downsizing or outright death of the American dream. A Google search for "the death of the American dream" yields more than 276 million citations. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said last year that "the American Dream is a myth" because "inequality is worse than you think." Even President Obama speaks of "diminished levels of upward mobility."
Commentators almost always define the American dream as the expectation of rapidly increasing material wealth. But this perspective unnecessarily narrows the concept, setting it up for dismissal as a corpse or a fantasy whenever the economy slows down.
The American dream has always included material aspiration, especially for those who start out with little or nothing. But as James Truslow Adams —who popularized the term in his 1931 history, "The Epic of America"—wrote, it was "not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but 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 innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." It was the freedom to seek and pursue one's own path. Most important, it was the freedom to follow one's conscience without constraints from governmental authorities.
The American dream in its full sense has been especially evocative for young people and immigrants. I have a vivid memory from my own youth of how stirring this idea can be.
As a ninth-grade sports reporter for my high-school newspaper, I covered a soccer match against a team of immigrant kids from then-communist Eastern Europe. They were great players but ragged and indigent: I can still picture the green pepper and bacon-fat sandwiches that their mothers had packed for their lunches. Yet when I spoke with these boys, I heard them talk excitedly about the American dream.
What did it mean for them? One mentioned an uncle back home who was in jail for a sign he carried. Another said that his parents were forced to conceal their religious views in their old country. There was also talk about our wide-open American culture, the amazing prospect of being able to pursue whatever careers they wanted, and, yes, the hope of getting rich. It was a heady mix, fueled by desires that ran the gamut from the material to the spiritual.
Now, decades later, I've had another chance to observe how young people envision the American dream, in a three-year study my research team at the Stanford Graduate School of Education will complete in June 2014. As part of our study, we ask native-born and immigrant youth what they think about American citizenship. We've had a wide range of responses from hundreds of young people, with scores of them offering more elevated and broadly conceived views than can be found in today's standard daily news feed.
Here's what one 18-year-old, native-born student had to say: "I think the American dream is that people can be who they are. Like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of action and stuff. I do believe in that. People can be who they want to be. They shouldn't be influenced by the government, influenced by anyone else, other than themselves, to be themselves."
One immigrant youth from India said he was "proud to say that I'm from that heritage and culture, but I'm proud of my American culture as well." He told us that he saw the American dream as a chance to get "a good job, make a good living, and uphold your duties to your country in all ways possible." His capsule summary: "I think that it comes back to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the fact that if you really have a dream and you work hard, you can achieve it."
If the American dream is dismissed as dead or never existing, or confined to its narrowest dimensions of material gain, it may seem that our future prospects are dim. But for those who appreciate the elevated meanings of the American dream that have triggered hope in good times and bad, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, a harbinger for a nation that is still rising.
Mr. Damon is an education professor at Stanford University, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.