2000: Individuals and Communities

Sometimes someone says something that is obviously true but no one seems to have noticed before. It's probably harder than it used to be to make such discoveries, because information is today so widely disseminated through so many different channels. And of course some of the obviously true things people discover turn out to be false.

But this year a thesis was put forward that seemed obviously true, to me at least; then was backed up by exhaustive and exhausting statistical analysis; then was challenged by professionals, as theses usually are; but seems to me in the end to represent a version of the truth. It is the observation by Professor Robert Putnam of the Kennedy School of Government that there has been over the past fifty years a profound shift in the level of social engagement that Americans have with their neighbors and workmates. Putnam notes that Americans are much less likely than they used to be to have weekly poker games with their neighbors or to participate in a regular bowling league alongside their fellow employees. The latter example leads to the title of his book, Bowling Alone; bowling remains the most popular recreational sport in America, but people today tend to bowl, if not alone, just with their family members or a close friend or two. The diminution of broad social bonding that has resulted is dangerous, Putnam believes, for the American experiment in democracy, as it is associated with declines in everything from PTA engagement to voting in local and national elections. Disturbingly, Putnam shows example after example of these associations: for example, parts of the country where membership in social clubs has declined are the same places where voting behavior is at its worst.

These observations hit me hard, because I felt I knew exactly what he was talking about. My father belonged both to the Rotary Club and to the bowling league at the place he worked; I don't do anything like that. Neither does my brother. I consider myself a reasonably friendly and fun-loving guy, and I never thought of my parents as particularly sociable. Why then have the things these ambitious second-generation Americans did to create social capital, as Putnam would say, so disappeared from the life of their heirs?

Putnam raises several obvious explanations, none of which turn out to be correct. ``We all work much harder than our parents.'' Not true statistically, nor, I think, in my own case; I've never in my life gotten to work at 5:30AM as my father did almost every day. ``Women work outside the home today, and the diminution of social life in the evening is just the small price to be paid for the unquestionably greater opportunities available today to those who used to be kept away from careers.'' Probably not the real reason, and almost certainly not the explanation in my case, since my mother did work for a living.

Another attempt at explanation is to think that Putnam has it wrong; things haven't changed that much really, he is just looking in the wrong places for social engagement. We don't have bowling leagues today, but we have internet chat rooms. We don't join the Rotary Club like we used to but we join the Sierra Club and the NRA. A comforting thought, but probably not a good answer; we don't have the same human connections to people we know only through their screen identities, and our connections to the big national organizations to which we belong are more like my connection to Newsweek Magazine or the American Automobile Association than to the PTA.

In the end, Putnam comes down with a couple of blindingly obvious possible explanations. Television is one great villain; the number of socially isolated hours spent by Americans in front of the tube is enormous, and many of those are hours that in another era would have been spent in visits and conversation with others. In my youth there was a popular image of the TV as the electronic hearth, around which the family would gather for unifying entertainment; if that was ever true, I'm sure no one sees TV that way today.

The other explanation is even more obvious: my parents and their generation are dead, and the statistics are today about me and my children, who came of age under very different circumstances. My parents' generation really was a great one, as Tom Brokaw presented in his book; the unity of national purpose around winning the Second World War, and the bonding experience of the many who depended on each other during that war, whether abroad on the front or at home working and praying for the safety of their loved ones, is entirely different from the effect that the Vietnam war had on my generation. As those who shared that Second World War experience have passed on, they have taken a whole social structure with them.

The picture is a complicated one, and it is too easy to romanticize the world we have lost. But there are many implications for the way to think about our common experience here at Harvard, as students and faculty, in this small and precious residential college. We need to think about how Harvard can produce not just better scholars, better leaders, and better social activists, but better and more committed ordinary citizens. We need to think about how to do our part, over the long run, for this country, through the lessons we teach our students about working together with their peers, not simply about excelling as individuals.