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Robert Putnam's Our Kids and Reclaiming the American Dream

05/21/2015 09:31 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Robert Putnam, in his seminal synthesis Bowling Alone, recalls the first two thirds of the 20th century, when "a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities." In Our Kids, Putnam describes the 20th-century boom that produced increases in both absolute and relative socioeconomic mobility. The rich, the poor, and the middle class all benefited from the prosperity driven by industrial growth. The rising tide of the manufacturing economy raised all boats, and often it raised the dinghies sailed by the poor more than it raised the yachts.

Bowling Alone focused on the few decades preceding the 1990s, when "silently, without warning -- that tide [toward deeper engagement in community life] reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current." Our Kids grounds the decline in the social capital of America's poor in the decline of economic opportunity. It starts with Putnam's hometown in Ottawa County, Ohio, where the industrial economy and economic mobility started to tremble and decline in the 1970s.

Ottawa County illustrates the devastation wrought by deindustrialization throughout the nation. Well-paying jobs started to disappear in the 1970s, and by 2012 real wages were down by an average of 16 percent. This spurred a population decline and placed extreme stresses on families and communities. The rise of single-parent families made it more difficult to prepare young children for the education necessary in the post-industrial, global economy, and schools were not able to address the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) endured by children during hard times.

Putnam recognizes that Bowling Alone could be read as a part of the "declensionist" tradition, and he warns against interpreting his work as "simple nostalgia." He writes,

The fifties and sixties were hardly a "golden age," especially for those Americans who were marginalized because of their race or gender or social class or sexual orientation. Segregation, by race legally and by gender socially, was the norm, and intolerance, though declining, was still disturbingly high.

But he makes the case that the self-assurance that comes with a sense of belonging helped in the battle against racism, sexism, and intolerance. He observes:

We were a "can do" people, who accomplished whatever we set out to do. We had licked the Depression, turned the tide in World War II, and rebuilt Europe after the war. ... Freedom Summer was an audacious undertaking consistent with the exaggerated sense of importance and potency shared by the privileged members of America's postwar generation.

Moreover, Bowling Alone foreshadows a key theme in Our Kids by noting that "a well-connected individual in a poorly connected society is not as productive as a well-connected individual in a well-connected society." Putnam expands on this theme by documenting the divisive nature of the self-segregation of the last two decades.

One passage in Bowling Alone resonates for me because it recalled the special event when my elementary-school principal took us to the junior high to watch a documentary. The real reason we need school, he added, was that in the future the work week would be 20 hours or less. We needed a great education so that we could get the most out of new opportunities and be the most creative and fulfilled in our free time.

Putnam cites a 1958 University of Chicago study that "fretted that 'the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,' a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb." Six years later Life magazine ran the headline "The task ahead: how to take life easy."

Regardless of the tasks we face, Putnam's comprehensive analyses stand as a reminder that there are no simple standalone solutions to complex, interrelated problems. Whether we are tackling problems with schools, families, health outcomes, or communities and social capital, quick and easy shortcuts won't work. Being an inner-city teacher, I especially appreciate his discussion of the problems and solutions for high-poverty schools.

I doubt that Putnam fully realizes how appreciative teachers are of his efforts to shift our toxic education debates to a conversation about the real problem, the opportunity gap. To close the racial and economic achievement gaps, we must regain the confidence required to tackle out-of-school issues as well as in-school issues. We must start with high-quality early education, as we end the narrowing of the curriculum to testable subjects and restore extracurricular activities. We must address entire school cultures in an effort to recruit and retain teaching talent in high-challenge schools. While Putnam acknowledges the political challenges associated with socioeconomic integration, it and full-service community schools are necessary.

Putnam goes out of his way to avoid the blame game as he lists constructive, humane, evidence-based solutions. As Nicholas Lemann says in an excellent New York Review of Books review, Our Kids could have focused on the "1 percent" and the rise of corporate power documented by Thomas Piketty. Instead, he wrote a different book that contrasted the gains of the upper one third of Americans with the declines of the bottom third.

We need both -- Piketty's documentation of the damage done by corporate elites and Putnam's nonjudgmental approach. The question of how much strife will be necessary to correct the growth of inequities will be determined by how the elites respond.

Putnam briefly explains how the standard competition-driven, test-driven education-reform solutions are misguided, but he doesn't dwell on recriminations. I hope that we educators, who have been so abused by corporate school reform, will be equally charitable and open to Putnam's pragmatic and constructive approach. Our students need more loving adults in their lives. We need a team effort to teach them self-control and responsibility (regardless of whether we use the word "grit"). And, of course, our kids need better-paying jobs.

Neither schools nor great scholarship like Putnam's can close the opportunity gap. But America has tackled worse problems. Both a new set of education policies and Our Kids can help generate the conversations that will be necessary to get our democracy back on track.