Sunday, April 12, 2015


I finally got the chance to read Robert Putnam’s latest, Our Kids.  

In the world of political theory, Putnam’s work on “social capital,” especially in Bowling Alone, was inescapable for about ten years.  Putnam argued that voluntary belonging to groups in civil society had been in long decline, and he pinned most of the blame at the time on television.  The decline in “belongingness” mattered, he argued, because “civil society” was where most people learned and developed political efficacy.  It was where you learned to be a citizen.  In putting together, say, a Little League schedule, you form broad-but-weak ties with other adults in the community.  Those ties -- beyond the family, but still local -- form the basis for collective action, as well as for professional networks.  In the shift from bowling leagues to bowling alone, he argued, we lost capacities we didn’t know we needed.

As with any Big Idea, there was plenty to attack, and people did.  But there was a recognizable glimmer of truth to the idea, which is probably why the term stuck long after anyone still read the book.  For years, political theorists were compelled to grapple with the idea of “social capital,” whether they wanted to or not.  (My own, somewhat skeptical effort can be found in the September, 2001 edition of “New Political Science.”  I came away much more impressed by Nina Eliasoph’s work in Avoiding Politics than by Putnam’s.)

His new book, Our Kids, attempts to be similarly agenda-setting.  This time, the goal is to highlight the effects of class polarization on the lives of young adults.  His thesis is that during his own childhood in the 1950’s, there was enough social capital in many places that kids who grew up in working-class homes were often able to climb economically over time, and to avoid serious deprivation or danger.  (To his credit, Putnam recognizes that his nostalgia is racially specific.)  But in contemporary America, the gulf in life circumstances across economic classes has grown so large that people in any given class really don’t recognize the reality that others experience.  The cultural tailwinds that used to propel many people forward are largely confined to the upper classes now.  Worse, while the tailwinds are effective, they’re also largely invisible, especially to those who benefit from them.  As a consequence, people who have political clout don’t understand the roots of their own success, and falsely attribute it entirely to their own (or their family’s) merit.  And people who don’t have clout are so turned off and mystified that they don’t even try.  So the political discourse, and resulting action, is based on a myopia that becomes self-reinforcing over time.  As the classes pull farther apart, we collectively lose sight of our common humanity, and we enact policies that accelerate the polarization.

Putnam is careful throughout not to come across as polemical, taking pains to note when a politically conservative lens is useful for understanding an issue.  The book never really identifies villains, per se, and its policy prescriptions fall far short of anything that would make a meaningful difference.  For a book on a crucial political conflict, it’s strangely apolitical.  

From the perspective of someone at a community college, Putnam’s treatment is both revealing and unsatisfying.  He asserts that “for most kids (!), community colleges are not really a rung on a taller ladder, but the end of the line, educationally speaking.” (p. 185)  Leaving aside his sense of community college student ages, Putnam leaves entirely unaddressed the “middle skills jobs” that require education beyond high school, but that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.  Instead, he leaps quickly to “more selective institutions, which for better or worse offer the best prospects for success in America…” (p. 186).  Well, yes and no.  I would have expected a more thoughtful and detailed take from someone this prominent on an issue this important.

Putnam mentions in passing that Jennifer Silva assisted in his research.  Her recent book, Coming Up Short, is a much smarter and more incisive take on similar issues.  She works without nostalgia, and her interviews are far more insightful and revealing than his.  If you like to read about the effects of class polarization on the ground, I’d recommend going directly to her book instead.  In this case, at least, the research assistant has surpassed the big name.

Still, Putnam offers an unintentionally helpful insight into the ways that well-meaning, progressive-ish elites view community colleges, and how they get them wrong.  Most people who work in community colleges -- Putnam doesn’t cite a single one -- see their mission as helping struggling students of all ages improve their lot in the world.  They’re about creating a middle class for a country that has forgotten how to do that.  Putnam seems to share that goal, but has moved so long in elite circles that he has forgotten how it’s done, too.  To the extent that he has the ear of the powerful, he’s unintentionally sending messages that will make our mission even harder than it already is.  

“Our” kids, as a phrase, presumes the existence of a coherent group behind the first-person plural.  Putnam’s view, sadly, reflects a relatively narrow group, despite his best intentions.  If he’d like to get a sense of social mobility on the ground, I’d be happy to host him on campus.  We’re only about 90 minutes from Harvard on the Mass Pike, though from his telling, you’d think we were a world away.  It might even be faster if you catch a tailwind.