Harvard’s Robert Putnam Delves into the Lives of Public Schools

By Paul Theobald

I closely follow the work of Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam.  From time to time I have taken issue with his arguments, but generally speaking, I find him to be thorough to a fault and always writing about matters of critical importance to humanity.  He is probably best known for Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of Community in America, published in 2000.  The book is an exhaustive chronicle of the demise of citizen participation in all manner of community clubs and associations across all regions of the country, and across all demographics.  But it was really his prior work, undertaken with a team of researchers in Italy, that set up Bowling Alone for the huge scholarly impact it had.

In Making Democracy Work (1993), Putnam and his team set out to solve a puzzle:  How could two regions of the same country have such starkly different levels of economic vitality?  Why was northern Italy prosperous, while southern Italy languished?  To uncover the answer, no stone was left unturned.  Putnam’s team analyzed everything, from early feudal traditions to the emergence of the mafia.  In the end, however, Putnam argued that northern Italy was able to “make democracy work” because of the high level of citizen participation in local associations.  This conclusion dovetailed with what came to be called “communitarian theory” emerging in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s in the work of such scholars as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Robert Bellah, Alisdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others.

Making Democracy Work helped to make the communitarian case that there is a pivotal link between community and democracy, that you can’t have one without the other.  Charles Taylor famously entitled a 2003 journal-length essay, “No community, no democracy.”  Bowling Alone, charting the collapse of community in America, helped to explain America’s continuing retreat from democracy and the appearance of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a consortium of large corporations dedicated to propagating corporate-friendly legislation, including voter suppression laws.

But Robert Putnam is not one to merely identify a problem, he also suggests solutions.  Following Bowling Alone, he offered a much less popular book (co-authored with Lewis Feldman) Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003).  The book provides example after example of emerging associations and clubs, people trying to reverse the trends identified in Bowling Alone.  But the George W. Bush years were hardly good for anyone trying to promote a revival of community in America.  The book had little impact.

In the years following Better Together, Putnam tackled the question of increasing diversity and its impact on community, or perhaps said more accurately, its impact on the strength of communal bonds.  What he found was that increasing levels of diversity had a negative impact on the existence of trust within communities.  Putnam reported these findings in his 2006 John Skytte Price Lecture entitled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century” adding that he believes the decline in communal bonds accompanying the increase in diversity is a short-term dynamic, and that over the long-haul, those communal bonds will be strengthened by diversity.  Conservative pundits, as one might expect, jumped all over this conjecture and he found himself ridiculed on talk radio and in other venues.

Putnam next turned to religion in America, publishing American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us in 2010.  The book won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association.  Like all Putnam’s work, the research undergirding American Grace is exhaustive.  It points to an interesting fact: the increasing secularization of American citizens has left the religious scene extremely polarized.  Putnam argues, essentially, that religious moderates are no longer around; they simply abandoned religion, leaving a large gulf between secular liberals and conservative fundamentalists.  Needless to say, this gulf inhibits the effective functioning of democracy.

And now Putnam has turned to the world of America’s public schools: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015).  Some minor quibbles notwithstanding, I think this is very good work and I think it is on par, in terms of potential impact, with the contribution he made through Bowling Alone.  Putnam demonstrates that there was more opportunity for American youth to achieve the “American Dream” in 1959, when he graduated from high school, then there is today.  Why?  Because America has become increasingly divided along class lines, with a huge and ever-growing inequality gap.  Put simply, Putnam argues that the children of the poor experience the world in markedly different ways from children of the affluent.  These differences negatively and powerfully affect the odds for social mobility among the poor.  Putnam doesn’t mince words—inequality is condemning millions of American youth to a bleak future; a circumstance, he argues, that renders America’s future as a democracy tenuous.

True to form, Putnam tries to present some potential solutions and, thankfully, he doesn’t drag out the tired and obviously self-serving cant about school choice and charters.  He argues that earned income tax credits could put more money into the hands of poor families—a circumstance that demonstrably (and undeniably) improves student achievement.  He proposes parental readiness and coaching (some of which, if not handled appropriately, could be seriously problematic—although his lack of familiarity with professional education issues, I would argue, should qualify him for a pass here).  He recommends better school funding, extending school hours, improving teacher training, and creating a tighter school-community connection through place-based curriculum and instruction (although he doesn’t call it that).

To be sure, there’s nothing path-breaking here.  He identified a problem that a large segment of the professional education community was already painfully aware of, and his suggested solutions, too, are not new.  But Putnam is a world-class scholar with an enormous following.  What this means is that many more Americans will come to understand the dramatically negative impact of ever growing levels of inequality, and the degree to which the lives of children are constrained and limited by our current conditions.  Perhaps that will make a difference.


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