The Australian Aborigines are an interesting tribe – still in existence today, and rich with a uniqueness beyond what is comprehend-able to even some Americans. But they can serve as a model to us in so many ways – in their familial interactions; in their way of life and survival; and, most importantly, in their dreams. For the Aborigines of Australia are a tribe whose culture has evolved to accept their dreams as reality, and their waking life as only a bridge between dreaming states. Their culture, their belief systems – their entire way of thinking – is based in the land of the sleeping; in the land of their dreams.
We can learn from this in a variety of ways. Anthropologically speaking, we can study this as a uniqueness to the Aboriginal culture. Psycho-sociologically we can look at it in terms of the way the society works, and how its peoples develop as functional human beings. Yet there is another way that we can study this fantastical dreamland the Aborigines hold so literally, and that is in how it explains our own behavior.
The dream reality of the Australian Aborigines began simply with a statement or two, something along the lines of “I had a dream, it seemed so real,” or “I saw that in my dream, and here it is!” And as generations passed, more and more stock was put into the statements that were made about the dreams of the people in the tribe. From an evolutionary standpoint, it took only a few generations before these statements of what happened in the dreams of the Aborigines became a commonplace understanding that the dreams, themselves, were in fact reality. As unintentional as it may seem, over time the Aborigines engaged in what we would call a social indoctrination.
In an example perhaps closer to home, we can consider Pavlov’s dogs. This famous experiment has been shown to prove the effect of conditioning on even the most irrational of animals. Hear the bell ring and get a treat so many times, this eventually means to the dog that the sound of a bell means a treat. The very definition of “ringing bell” became “treat.” Pavlov’s dogs is not only a psychological lesson, it too is an example of a social indoctrination.
For the Australian Aborigines, the definition of dream morphed and (in the same way as Pavlov’s dog’s) took on an all new meaning. By calling this a social indoctrination, we signify that the society in which we speak of has (intentionally or unintentionally) conditioned itself to believe something as an absolute truth.
So what is strikingly disturbing about all this is that we are in a time of American culture when rapid modernization is imposing all new meanings on seemingly everything we have come in contact with for years. What makes it disturbing, though, is that because of the modernization (and because of the rise in technology and the subsequent availability of information), definitions and ideas no longer require entire generations to take hold. Sometimes it is only years or months. Social indoctrination in American culture is happening at an unprecedented rate.
A few days ago, my husband and I were scheduled to meet his parent’s for dinner, but something came up for him at work and we had to cancel. He called his parents to cancel, and later told me that he was really too busy to talk, but that his mother said “well, at least you have a job!” Innocently, she was trying to be supportive and understanding – especially in an economic time where so many are unemployed and scraping to make ends meet. In reality, though, what my mother-in-law did was the same thing that the Australian Aborigines did with their dreams, and that Pavlov did to his dogs with the treats – she merely reinforced the changing belief in what it means to be employed in America. She unintentionally contributed to the social indoctrination of modern American employment.
Twenty, fifty, one hundred years ago, to be employed in America meant to be doing your duty to society. To be employed meant to be a functional, productive and worthwhile human being. To have a job in America was a right – which everyone who was capable was endowed with. To work in America meant being a skilled and honorable individual. And Americans who worked were treated by society and their employees accordingly – they were compensated, given benefits, given dignity, rewarded, and appreciated.
Today what it means to work has morphed for American society, which is a tragic turn for it appears to only perpetrate the problems between the classes – and commits a new social indoctrination, that work in America is really a rare commodity. Today in America, when someone says “I have a job,” they mean that they are able to scrape by and pay their bills for another month. When someone makes reference to their employment, they are talking about the thing they feel lucky to have, since so many people don’t have them. When a person works in America today, their work is no longer a product of their honor and worthiness – it is something a company has graciously allowed them to do instead of someone else. It is one resume point more than all the other qualified people. Most alarming is that when an employer says “you’re hired,” they mean “we’ll give you this now, but just remember we’re doing you a favor.” And in America today, no one considers working a right – it is a privilege. “At least you have a job” is a statement of relief which does nothing more than reinforce the new belief of work in America, rather than save it.
How long will it take, though, before this idea is permanently ingrained in our minds as absolute truth, just as the dreams for the Aborigines and the treats for Pavlov’s dogs? With the Aborigines, stock is now placed in the dreamworld as if it is reality. If we continue to tell ourselves that to work is a privilege, and that to have a job is nothing more than a relief – in the blink of an eye we will truly believe in nothing more. Our goals and dreams will become for us matters of luck.
Say there is a ten year old boy and he is training for a bike race by riding thirty minutes a day. One day he is out training and falls in the road while a car is coming. Fortunately, the car notices him and swerves, pulls over and says “boy, kid – you sure are lucky!” From then on, though, the boy no longer wants to train, for even children are rarely willing to try their luck anymore. So he drops out of the race and quits riding his bike altogether. If we continue to consider ourselves lucky that we have work in America, eventually we will stop trying to achieve our goals. Eventually we will truly believe that we are just lucky – not talented, skilled, or honorable. Just lucky.
That we aren’t really expressing a right when we work, or that we aren’t really honorable or worthwhile; but instead that we have been done a favor and likely aren’t even deserved of that – that we are lucky – is a grave position to take. We are at a critical juncture – for the social indoctrination of America relative to work has not truly become fact for its people. The definitions may have molded, but it is not a complete reality just yet. But it is the very fabric of the American experience to work and to take pride in that work – whatever it may be. If we do not take pride in our work, though; and we never strive to achieve more for fear we will lose our streak of luck, it will not only be the definition of work in America that will have changed, but the very definition of being an American. Are we just a mass of people struggling to survive? Struggling to be the lucky ones this time? Or are we people who are goal-driven, who know we are worthy and know we deserve better; people who will always strive for better and for more? This is a systemic problem and the implications are great – but as long as there is an attitude that we really cannot do better, we will be doomed to evolve to truly believe this forever.