The Book Club

Civic Entrepreneurship

Dear Nick,

I’d rather spend our time in this forum on more interesting issues than correcting misstatements of fact, but you give me no choice but to begin there.

  1. Do ordinary Americans believe that sociability and civility are declining? Yes. Numerous surveys summarized in Bowling Alone show that most Americans believe that America’s civic life has weakened in recent years, that social and moral values were stronger when they were growing up, that our society has become focused more on the individual than the community, and that these things need to change. We know perfectly well what’s happened to community ties, and we don’t like it.
  2. Does Bowling Alone overlook important counter-examples, like non-PTA parent groups (PTOs)? No. There is no evidence whatsoever that PTOs have grown since the 1960s (when PTA membership reached its peak); if you (or Ladd) had any such evidence, you would have shared it with us. In fact, given the current ratio of PTO to PTA membership, it is mathematically impossible that PTO growth could have offset PTA decline. Virtually all the evidence shows a steady decline in the amount of time that parents spend with their kids. If you have any evidence (not just personal anecdotes or speculation) that Bowling Alone is mistaken about the declines in the dozens of other forms of community involvement that I discuss, both formal and informal, let’s hear it. Otherwise, I’m mindful of the observation by one recent reviewer that the first section of Bowling Alone “seeks to prove to academic critics a thesis lay readers considered a no-brainer: American community life is in decline.” Let’s not spend too much time on a no-brainer and too little time debating what we can do to reverse that decline.

So, Nick, let’s assume for the sake of argument that most Americans, along with the Wall Street Journal’s “fair-minded reader,” are right about the decline in community. Should we be worried about this? You say that you and I are in agreement on the importance of community bonds, but what you then add makes me wonder.

You seem to think it is just dandy that we are half as generous to our less fortunate neighbors than our parents were, that it is almost noble that we are keeping more of our own wealth to ourselves, despite the biggest, fastest-growing gap between haves and have-nots in at least a century. I don’t. You seem to think it is just fine that we participate less in governing our democracy (leaving power in the hands of those with enough money to buy influence) because we have found better ways to amuse ourselves. I don’t. Do you also dismiss the well-documented tenfold increase in clinically measured depression over the last generation, along with the dramatic rise in teen suicide, twin tragedies for which growing social isolation is the most plausible explanation? I don’t. We have become richer materially than we used to be, as you keep repeating, but too many of us have also become more self-centered, more alienated, more depressed. Goodness knows, I’m not opposed to material comforts, but there is more to human life and happiness than watching Survivor on a bigger TV in a bigger house with a bigger SUV in the garage.

The good news is that more and more Americans recognize the urgency of restoring community bonds. When 750 folks in Kalamazoo (more than 2 percent of the entire adult population) came to a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting last week to talk about how to reinvigorate civic life, it was not my pretty face that drew them, but a deep conviction that things could be better. Kalamazoo is a smaller place than the metropolitan areas in which most Americans live, but it has in microcosm all the familiar problems–a distressed inner city populated mainly by minorities, an expanding ring of suburbs from which the commute takes ever longer, families stressed by the pressures of work and two careers, a weakening sense of community. And yet over breakfast people agreed that they could and should experiment with new ways of coming together.

They and you and I all agree that reweaving the fabric of our communities does not mean returning to outmoded organizations with funny hats and exclusionary practices. Growing numbers of civic entrepreneurs in communities like Kalamazoo are inventing new forms of connectedness and sharing those ideas with like-minded people in other cities and towns. Check out the stories on our Web site at BetterTogether. org, Nick, and then share a few of your own. Too many American communities are, sadly, still in decline, but it doesn’t have to be that way.