Monday, May 10, 2010

Shortchanging Social Capital and Schools

Prompt: What was social life in American like earlier in the 20th century; and how has it changed? How have Americans changed their style of civic and political participation? What impact does this have on our democracy? What is social capital and in what ways is social capital both a private and public good? How can a lack of social capital be linked to urban metropolitan decline in the United States and White Flight? When thinking about social reconstruction policy (in particular for education) in urban areas why would social capital be an important factor? What is the difference between physical and social reconstruction? How has the ‘suburban versus city’ dynamic impacted equality in education? What does this say about the ability of the United States to provide a democratic education system?
In “Thinking About Social Change in America,” Robert Putnam argues that politics was a major component to American social life until participation in community groups began to decline after the 1960s. At the end of the 1960s sociologists Daniel Bell and Virginia Held stated that “there is more participation than ever before in America...and more opportunity for the active interested person to express his personal and political concerns.” The fifties and sixties saw increased participation in voting and increased confidence in their neighbors. Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted,” which Gallup polls assessed as increasing “from 66 percent during and after World War II to a peak of 77 percent in 1964.”
Putnam's article highlights the warning signs that this “golden age” of politics was soon to be threatened. A 1958 study by the Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago argued that “the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure.” Life magazine argued “mankind now possesses for the first time the tools and knowledge to create whatever kind of world he wants” (Putnam 109).
Putnam acknowledges that this wonderful life of leisure for some did not bring happiness or social involvement “for those Americans who were marginalized because of their race or gender or social class or sexual orientation.” Segregation, “environmental degradation,” “grinding rural poverty,” and infant mortality had yet to be exposed for the problems that they posed (109). Even though Baby Boomers believed in greater tolerance, greater social involvement and held valuable the ideals of a “participatory democracy” sociologist Doug McAdam argues that the activism of “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”(110).

Align Center
"It's one take on my neighborhood. It's the 1 a.m., rainy-night version of my neighborhood. It's not the everyday experience, but there was kind of a point where it seemed my daily life and every way in which I was thinking and feeling was so based on my neighborhood — either staying in my house all the time because I didn't want to be out there on the streets in the chaos of it all, or being out there in the streets in the chaos of it all and running into all these familiar crazy people. It actually kind of drove me out of the neighborhood — I moved out."
-Scott McMicken, lead guitarist of Dr. Dog 
I think the disparities between these lives of leisure and marginalized lives adequately describes the cause of distrust within modern day American politics and social relations. Putnam explains that “social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of the concept of 'social capital.'” He makes a distinction between “civic virtue” and “social capital.” Putnam argues that a society may have “many virtuous but isolated individuals” while failing to have a “dense network of reciprocal social relations” that amounts to a society that is “not necessarily rich in social capital” (110).

A connected society is necessary for building social capital that can benefit not only the private individual but the public as well. Although an individual may benefit from gaining a job or companionship, the community itself may benefit from an individual's contribution to a greater good, even if that person stands to benefit. A well connected society is necessary for productively connecting individuals to their needs. Putnam states that “a society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society.” Social capital therefore is not necessarily concentrated in any individual, group or institution but is rather the extent of these “social networks and associated norms of reciprocity” (112).

The question of social capital's role in the private and public spheres is directly applicable to the questions surrounding the services provided to an urban metropolitan area. Robert Lang outlines the impact “white flight” has upon cities in “Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis.” Edgeless cities see sprawling office developments remove the social capital benefits of those businesses from people who live in the city. These buildings “are not mixed use, pedestrian friendly or easily accessible by public transit,” limiting the possibilities of building social capital within the city. White flight represents a disparity between the two different types of reciprocity required for building social capital: specific and general. While these individuals may benefit specifically from their business and may benefit the people they have bonded with and care for, their flight from the city leaves no generalized reciprocity towards the communities they have left behind and often benefit from.
I personally prefer the Roberta Flack version of this song but I can't find her version online.

Education, in particular, has been cited as a means for social reconstruction in urban areas. It serves as a means for bonding and bridging communities together by creating relationships between families, teachers, administrators, and of course, students. While the reconstruction of schools often focuses on physical reconstruction of buildings or supplying school materials necessary for the education of students, social reconstruction focuses more on using schools as a means of bonding communities and bridging social divisions.

The United States has failed to implement a fully equal system of education. In some ways this disparity is tangible, as the “suburban versus city” dynamic often directly affects the quality of schools through the property taxes that support school budgets. This is why regional solutions have often been proposed to try an alleviate these inequities between schools in the upper to middle class suburbs against schools funded by working-middle class to impoverished city neighborhoods. The failure to fund these institutions equitably has caused the social benefit that all of us reap from education to suffer. Even though resolving these issues may require specific reciprocity towards school districts in terms of funding, I think there is also a necessity for generalized reciprocity to be encouraged through the design of the education system. Schools need to not only bond the communities living together but they should strive to bridge the gaps between other communities. Without mutually beneficial and connected relationships founded on trust, American politics cannot create the participatory community necessary to provide the necessary social capital for everyone.