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Robert Putnam's 'Our Kids' and the Story of Us

05/28/2015 05:49 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

"One downside to a society with a meritocratic gloss is that it encourages the winners to think that life is fairer than it is," writes Jason DeParle in his New York Times review of Robert Putnam's new book, Our Kids. Putnam marshals an enormous amount of research, which shows the effects of growing economic and educational inequality on social segregation -- increasingly poor and rich live in worlds apart -- as well on life chances.

In the course of the book project, Putnam says he learned a great deal. "Before I began this research...I thought...if I and my classmates could climb the ladder...so could kids from modest backgrounds." Now, he says, "I know better" (230).

He also forgot.

The 1993 book that made him famous, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, analyzed different levels of function in regional Italian governments. Civic cultures turned out to make the difference. "Findings strikingly corroborate the political theory of civic humanism," wrote John Gray in a Times review. "Strong and free government depends on a virtuous and public-spirited citizenry."

Two decades later in Our Kids, Putnam's view of democracy has shrunk. "The essence of democracy is equal influence on public decisions" (234), Putnam argues, citing the political theorist Robert Dahl, who saw democracy as centered on government. Putnam calls for citizens to lobby for federal policies such as expanded tax credits for the poor, more day care and growth in community colleges -- much the legislative agenda of President Obama, who was denounced for "class warfare" when he proposed it.

Gone are ideas of a public-spirited citizenry who solve problems and create civic goods across the sweep of society.

Putnam is not alone. Public commentators regularly see democracy as something we elect people to do for us. Writing after the 2008 election, The New Yorker's George Packer argued that Barack Obama's "messianic and vaporous" citizenship language was disingenuous.

"Throughout the campaign, Obama spoke of change coming from the bottom up," he said. "But every time I heard him tell a crowd, 'This has never been about me, it's about you,' he seemed to be saying just the opposite."

Packer believed that voters chose "the ground on which the majority of Americans -- looking to government for solutions -- now stand."

Government is also the center of the democratic universe in official publications. The definition of the U.S. government, disseminated around the world on the site of the U.S. Agency for International Development, proposes that "Democracy refers to a civilian political system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular competitive elections with universal suffrage."

But originating American understandings of democracy were far different. For people who settled a continent and struggled to create "a more perfect union," government was an instrument, not an end in itself. In Democracy in America, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s argued that what distinguished America was self-organizing citizen initiative and self-education. He was amazed to find log cabins on the prairies filled with Shakespeare and books like Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In the 20th century, civic action and education animated land grant colleges, farmers' movements like the Grange, Jane Addams's immigrant settlement houses, and adult education. Vice President Hubert Humphrey traced his political career to the democratic skills and values he learned in his father's drugstore in Doland, S.D. "In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion," Humphrey wrote in his autobiography, Education of a Public Man. "I've listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain." The store functioned as a cultural center, public space, and lending library.

Similarly, the civil rights struggle built on a vibrant culture of civic learning and self-organizing in black churches, schools, beauty parlors and other settings. I saw this first-hand as a college student in the movement. Septima Clark, an architect and philosopher of the movement's citizen schools for which I worked described their aim as "To broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship."

Clark was full of the democratic spirit, an expansive sense of democracy as a way of life. The poet Walt Whitman sought to describe its vastness.

We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps...a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted.

We've largely lost it. In the language of Marshall Ganz's "public narrative," which includes a "story of self," "story of us" and "story of now, the problem with our story, "us" as a society, is not simply that we have bitter divisions. Behind the divisions are feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Today's mainline story erases the agency of the democratic people.

We can learn some lessons here from the movements which toppled communism. Milan Kundera begins his masterful novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by describing February 21, 1948, when Vladimir Clementis, long-time activist, stood next to Klement Gottwald, chair of the communist party, on a balcony looking over a vast crowd at the moment when Gottwald ushered in the socialist government in Czechoslovakia. Two years later Clementis was charged with treason and killed because he opposed Stalinist demands. State officials airbrushed his image from school text books. Kundera observes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Today there are many forces which erode memory beyond government propagandists in our technocratic, frenetic, efficiency-minded and consumerist society.

Like Czechoslovakia, we also need a struggle of memory against forgetting.

Harry C. Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015). Many contributors convey a large history and practice of democracy and education.