Sunday, March 22, 2015

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam

Is income inequality a serious concern? Impacting opportunity for upward mobility? Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University professor and author of Bowling Alone, argues yes to both in his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam combines observations of his 1959 high school classmates and of current students with statistics, data and research to support his argument. 

Putnam and his book Our Kids were recently featured on pbs so if you only take one thing away from this rather long post be sure to watch that interview:


Video and transcript available here.

Putnam focuses on families, parenting, schooling, and community in separate sections of his book.  He makes many wise observations, including, “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea of how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.”  Don’t agree? Then take the “quiz” proposed at a recent Ted Conference by journalist and author Anand Giridharadas; he says:

“If you live near a Whole Foods; If no relative of yours serves in the military; If you’re paid by the year, not the hour; If no one you know uses meth; If you married once and remain married; If most people you know finished college; If you aren’t one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record. If any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that, actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem.”  

Read that again – and then turn to Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis for more detailed insight.
In the past few years, I have noticed much more interest from our students on economic and social class issues.  They have been sharing ideas recently as they grapple with questions for a major research paper.  Here are a few examples of questions that interest them:
  • Why do people end up becoming homeless? What factors contribute to it? To what extent are parents obligated to sacrifice their dreams to provide for their family? 
  • Should the Federal minimum wage be raised? Who works in fast food establishments? How has this changed over time? Can those workers earn enough to support a family?
  • How do parenting styles impact children’s ability to cope with stress and to succeed at school?
As we research, I am certainly mentioning Putnam’s Our Kids and the pbs interview, but I am also encouraging them to be on the lookout for other articles and editorials that will contribute to their arguments.

Here are a few that we found recently which are worth a look by everyone. Each probably deserves its own blog post, but they are certainly more powerful when read together:
  •  The Global Flight from the FamilyWall Street Journal (Feb, 20, 2015) which provides additional examples to show that these changes are not just happening in America.

Kudos to the teachers involved for encouraging exploration of these issues and kudos to the students for their critical thinking and raising some important, timely and relevant questions. If you are looking to explore these ideas further, read Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam.  Think about it – maybe take it with you on your family’s Spring Break trip to Mexico or Belize – we will have plenty to discuss when you return.