In my first year of college in 1979, I was introduced to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a multi-volume classic written from the pen of a French man examining the wonders of representative democracy in 1830‘s United States. I was impressed by de Tocqueville’s observations of an America filled with active citizens, ready to participate civically in the formation of a new nation founded on democratic beliefs. Now, more than a century and a half later, author Robert Putnam decries what he sees as the disintegration of social capital in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Every spring, our school enjoys a visit from the elderly members of the Grange, a civic organization that was founded after the Civil War as a fraternal organization for farmers. Three women from the Grange come with special dictionaries to give free to our third graders. They spend a few minutes with our students describing their organization and highlighting the finer points of their gift. In between, the “Grangers” and I bemoan the disintegration of their organization and how they are probably the last generation to be part of their fellowship. Unfortunately, their national membership has decreased 40% in the last 15 years. They are saddened that local young families have no interest in joining the group.
Putnam uses the sport of bowling as his leading example for diminishing social capital in America. While people will still bowl by themselves or perhaps on a date with another person, league bowling has decreased dramatically. Many studies also show a decline in church membership, involvement in city or town committees, or in civic organizations such as The Grange.
What effect does this have on our public schools?
- The local elementary school can substitute as a tool to build a community’s social capital. In many ways, our Hopkinton schools are the hub for the community. Parents will congregate in the morning after dropping their children off, at pick-up time in the afternoon and often on our new playground. Open House is as much a social time for families as it is an opportunity for parents to see our classrooms. In addition, families are increasingly busy. While Dads and Moms are not as tied to organizations such as the VFW, Lions Club, or the quilting circle, they do congregate at community sporting events or enrichment activities. Many argue that our public schools take on too much responsibility to meet the needs of society. Yet, we can be a comfortable and reliable social institution for families who depend on us.
- Another factor in declining social capital is the necessity for both parents to work. Once a source of extra income to keep up with the Jones’, a second salary might be essential for families who have been hurt by the current state of the economy. I have seen some decline in school volunteerism as a result, especially for specific requests. This shift requires schools to adapt and offer volunteer activities that do not require in-school attendance. For example, one of our volunteer opportunities is to help in our “Publishing Center” which produces professional looking books for our students’ writing, complete with a biography page, a fancy cover, and typed content. Most of the adult typists complete this task at home and bring in the finished copies on their way to work.
- As Putnam describes in his book, the rise of time spent alone with technology has much to do with the decline of community and civic involvement. Schools can take advantage of this and leverage students’ skill with technology to work collaboratively around projects that can benefit the community.
Assuming Putnam’s alarming contention is correct, we may be able to stem the tide of community apathy through purposeful opportunities in our schools. Good schools provide options for community building and will teach the next generation about the power of face-to-face contact and collaboration. This can lead to an increase in civic involvement and return us to de Tocqueville’s image of a democratic America.