The American “good life”: A study of American culture and the values of American teenagers

Erskine White, Tennessee State University


This is a qualitative study of what “the good life” has meant in American culture, and more particularly, how American high school students understand the term today. The literature review examined historical sources on three themes: the good life as material abundance, religion and the good life, and education and the good life. As for the first, it was found that the abundant land, the spirit of democracy itself, and a plethora of successful government programs to promote abundance incubated an American ideology of prosperity. Regarding religion and the good life, the ancient Judeo-Christian renunciation of wealth was transformed in America, as the capitalist virtues of Puritanism produced the very prosperity Puritans intuitively distrusted. Regarding education and the good life, classical and Renaissance societies wanted education to instill moral virtue, but democracy required education to prepare students to succeed in the marketplace. Research for this study analyzed essays solicited nationwide from high school students on “What the Good Life Means To Me.” Student essays revealed the pervasive influence of commercial values and aspirations. Yet few students accepted “the good life as material abundance” uncritically. Most qualified their materialistic ambitions with themes of family, friends, or service to society. Those who wrote about “religion and the good life” saw no conflict between piety and prosperity. No student saw religion as involving an economic or political sacrifice. Few students wrote about “education and the good life.” Those who did saw education strictly in utilitarian terms, i.e., as a means to choices and good jobs in the future. This study yielded three main conclusions. First, democracy predisposes Americans to conceive of “the good life” in individualistic and materialistic terms. Second, American youth are seeking higher, countervailing values by which to live, but they lack the cultural resources to find them. Third, those resources can be provided if religion will revive its ancient counter-cultural traditions, and if education will reinvigorate its ancient conviction that what we really need to learn is not just how to make a good living, but how to make a good life.

Subject Area

American studies|Education history|Religion

Recommended Citation

Erskine White, "The American “good life”: A study of American culture and the values of American teenagers" (2000). ETD Collection for Tennessee State University. Paper AAI3007580.