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The deterioration of American community has become an increasingly examined problem in social science. Some of its major descriptors include Charles A. Murray ‘65, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and, more recently, the author of “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010”; and Robert D. Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”
I was interested in what my graduating Harvard friends and I could do to stave off the decline of American social capital—social networks and the trust and norms of reciprocity that result from them—that both scholars identify. In Coming Apart, Murray argues that, since the 1960s, there has been a qualitative divergence between a “new lower class” and a “new upper class.” The vast majority of Harvard graduates end up in the latter group. As Murray writes, the new upper class “share tastes, preferences, and culture” more so than ever and has become “increasingly isolated” along residential, economic, educational, and (often) political lines. This split, then, signifies damage to “the American project”—the capacity for individuals to live their lives as they choose and to join together to solve common problems—and to our community more broadly.
I asked Murray what members of my graduating class could do, the 22 year-olds who will leave the Harvard bubble in May, but he answered with a gloomy outlook. “Not much,” he said. “A great deal of social capital…is generated by the exigencies of family.” Since most of us will graduate Harvard without spouses and children, we will lack these “motivating forces.” But he did offer a few pieces of advice: we should learn our crafts and get to know the world around us, move to neighborhoods with high socioeconomic diversity, or find jobs in cities unusual for young Harvard graduates, like Kansas City or Des Moines. Murray, a libertarian, does not believe the government can fix these problems; they must come from citizens themselves.
Putnam, whose course Government 98qa: Community in America I’m currently taking, offered a more optimistic forecast for our cohort. “The generation of young people who were caught in their impressionable years by the moment of 9/11 seem to have been permanently marked by it and to be more civic-minded than people even a few years older than them,” he told me, while cautiously noting that it is unclear how long this civic spiritedness will last.
He pointed out, however, that a recent rise in volunteering has likely resulted more from a desire to boost resumes than from a dedication to service. Nevertheless, research shows that people who participated in extracurricular activities in high school remain more civically involved 50 years later. According to Putnam, “being involved in community activities doesn’t merely have to be a matter of burnishing your resume.” Additionally, while he appreciates community service that focuses on individuals, Putnam recommends that young people focus on the “larger picture”—addressing the social structures that render some students illiterate, not just tutoring on an individual basis. Doing so will require changing public policy and becoming involved in civic life and politics.
Harvard students have always been involved in the communities around us. Being active in high school was necessary for admission. Much of what brought us to Harvard was a surefire confidence in our own self-realization: leadership credentials, extracurricular achievement, individual smarts, and work ethic. But as Amy Poehler said in her Class Day speech last year, “you can’t do it alone.” A ticket to Harvard was a singular reward for a fundamentally collective effort; we wouldn’t have gotten here without the support of the friends, family, teachers, and organizations we worked with. Since arriving at Harvard, we’ve continued to share in communal activities, and college has been an ideal model of a social capital-filled world. We have lived together, formed study groups, supported each other in plays and concerts, and played intramural sports. Just because we graduate doesn’t mean we have to stop engaging with our communities in meaningful ways.
As Murray said to me, “the affluent people in this country…have gotten very good at living glossy lives.” But, he added, “they aren’t textured lives.” No matter whether we came from or are headed to the new upper class, living and working together has made our time in college textured. Our experience creating rich communities at Harvard ought not stay here. We might not need our own families to recognize the problems of our neighborhoods, host potluck dinners, start bands, join clubs, and become deeply involved in the public sphere—in other words, to do the stuff of social capital—because Harvard has already given us practice.
In our own small ways, then, we have the opportunity to help rebuild American community. Whether we do so is, as Putnam told me, up to us.
Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays. Follow her on Twitter @LizBloom13.
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