Social capital also plays a major role in determining the success of students. Putnam recently told a gathering at the White House, “I’m very impressed as an educator with the administration’s efforts to make investments to decrease class size. But the statistical evidence is that the best predictor of the performance of a community’s schools, the best predictor of math scores and science scores, for example, is the social capital in that community, even better than the class size.”74
As James Coleman warned in 1987, we cannot understate “the importance of the embeddedness of young persons in the enclaves of adults most proximate to them, first and most prominently the family and second, a surrounding community of adults (exemplified in all these results by the religious community).”75
Go-go capitalism has an impact on communities. First, as discussed above, it keeps adults and children separated for long hours – adults at work, and kids alone or in formal systems of care and education. Second, it breeds urban sprawl that spawns neighborhoods of large houses isolated from fellow neighbors, local shops, community centers, etc. I live in a community of townhouses and because of my proximity with my neighbors I have been forced to get to know them. During a party one evening several of my neighbors were talking about how they wanted to buy one of the large “single family homes” that surround our enclave of townhouses. One of the guests spoke up, “I like where you live better because you have a sense of community that I don’t have in my neighborhood (of large isolated houses).”
Third, go-go capitalism impacts on communities by requiring both adults and children to spend more time in cars zooming from activity to activity. Fourth, go-go capitalism fosters disparities in income and opportunity. Robert Putnam explains why this matters when he writes, “Across time, across space, across the American states, there’s a very strong, positive relationship between the degree of economic equality and the degree of social capital. The places in America that have the lowest disparity of income are the places that have the highest levels of civic engagement.”76
It takes time to develop networks, to build organizations, and to raise children. Yet, from the perspective of children’s learning nothing could provide greater rewards than a cross-section of citizens coming together around the developmental needs of all its young people. Parents understand this intuitively, and many want to be involved in organizations that their children are interested in joining. In fact much of the angst that parents say they feel is directly related to juggling their need to work and their desire to spend time with their kids.
My fifth and final point about the negative aspects of go-go capitalism is that it requires more of education systems that are in many instances already stretched to their limits. As all the changes discussed above play out politicians and regular citizens are asking schools to do more, and increasingly schools are working hard to oblige. This increased focus on schooling has had the perverse effect of isolating children even further from the general community. For example, as schools have come under increasing pressure to raise standards for all students they have cut back on extracurricular activities that sought to connect the activities of children with the larger community. This is not an argument against raising standards; rather it is an argument in maintaining a balance between academics and life itself.
Additionally, as schools have been asked to do more they have physically grown in size. This goes against developing the strength and vitality of the children and the communities themselves. According to Robert Putnam, “we know that smaller schools encourage more active involvement in extracurricular activity than big schools – more students in smaller schools have an opportunity to play trombone or left tackle or King Lear. Smaller schools, like smaller towns, generate higher expectations for mutual reciprocity and collective action. So deconcentrating mega-schools or creating smaller ‘schools within schools’will almost surely produce civic dividends.”77
Many years ago the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson taught us that childhood and society are vitally connected. But we have not yet come to terms with the changes ushered in by the speed of change in our economy and society. “Childhood is different, adolescence is different, and adulthood is different. Without our noticing, we have created a new class of young children who increasingly take care of themselves, along with a whole generation of overburdened parents who have no time to enjoy the pleasures of parenting. So much has happened so fast, we cannot hold it all in our minds. It’s simply overwhelming.”78
This is all interesting, but what can we do about it?
The purpose of this paper has not been to overwhelm or depress you with issues that you feel you have little or no control over. Despite the challenges facing communities on both sides of the Atlantic there is much reason to be hopeful and excited about the future. There is no doubt that go-go capitalism is a powerful force and in partnership with technological change it is reshaping the nature of community, family, childhood and education. But, none of the trends discussed above are beyond human control. And, there are many opportunities in these changes. Despite the economic and social pressures, humans crave family (people to love), social contact, a sense of belonging, and community. We are, by nature, a highly social species.
As societies get richer our increased wealth offers opportunities that poorer societies simply do not have. In the recent past, and this is still the case in poorer countries, people knew their neighbors and lived in tight-knit families and communities because economically that was the only way they could survive. People were simply connected by economic need. In today’s rich countries we are much freer, and in fact if we so desire we could live materially comfortably in almost complete isolation. Yet, the vast majority of us do not choose this route. We want to live and interact with others. We enjoy shopping and mingling with crowds. We enjoy standing on the street corner speaking to neighbors and friends. We enjoy helping others.
This fact struck me recently in Fairfax County when I spent three hours on a street corner collecting money for a well-known American charity. As motorists stopped at the traffic light I would approach them with my colored vest and coffee can and ask them for a donation on behalf of retarded children and their families. In a little over 3 hours I collected at least $400, and had many conversations with complete strangers who thanked me for my work, asked me questions, raised issues, or just said keep up the good work. It was fascinating.Serendipitously, a few days after “working the streets” I came across a report published by the Public Agenda foundation in New York called “Just Waiting to be Asked?: A fresh look at attitudes on public engagement.”
The central premise of the report was that the majority of Americans, both parents and nonparents alike, would take time out to work with schools and children if asked. Yet, they are rarely asked. As detailed above, people are busy and if no one tries to tap their interest then it will lie dormant. The vast majority of citizens notice the workings and problems of schools and children only when they hear of a crisis or a tragedy in the popular media.
This is unfortunate because one of the positive aspects of go-go capitalism is that is has enabled legions of fit and highly talented 50 and 60-somethings to retire. These young retirees are a vast human resource just waiting to be tapped, but unfortunately in the US “The majority of school board members (74 percent) and superintendents (66 percent) say that in their districts there are no organized business groups that take positions on school policies such as spending. Even greater majorities – 82 percent of school board members (board of governor members), 86 percent of superintendents (school system CEOs) – say their districts have no organized senior citizens groups that take positions on school district policies.”79
In America, those people who work in schools see themselves as the key players in education, and for reasons of professional interest really only want limited community involvement in what they do. It is interesting to point out that the majority of teachers and school leaders seek public involvement in education only when they want community support to back their own particular agendas. They don’t want dialogue with the community. They simply want the community to understand and appreciate what they are doing.
According to the Public Agenda report, “rather than enlisting ordinary citizens to actively engage in the mission of education, teachers view citizens primarily as voters, taxpayers and cheerleaders. In this respect, it seems ironic that the kind of relationship teachers want the public to have with the schools – where teachers bring the public in mostly for support – is uncomfortably close to what teachers describe as their own relationship with district leaders.”80 In this respect teachers actually work against what could be in the best interest of children.
Teachers complain that they “are buffeted by forces beyond their control, and decisions are taken without their input. In short, they see themselves as the perennial soldiers given their marching orders. This state of affairs is more than ironic, since, as will be seen below, teachers may well be the most important – and neglected – constituency when it comes to education reform.”81
Despite their potential role in influencing public opinion, “teachers clearly do not think they are real players in determining the school district’s direction: 70 percent say rank-and-file teachers are often left out of the loop in their district’s decision-making process. Teachers also don’t believe that district leaders really put much effort or stock in finding out their views: in their district, say 70 percent of teachers, when district leaders talk with them about school policy it’s to win teacher’s support for ‘what the district leadership wants to accomplish.’Only 23 percent believe the motive is ‘to gain a better understanding of the issues and concerns of the teachers…It is tempting for teachers to therefore regard new reform initiatives as simply a temporary phenomenon, driven by whatever new ‘regime’is installed at the helm of their district or whatever new fad has hit the education field – in any case, something they can ignore or wait out. They tend to regard change crossly, with a ‘reform du jour’bias.”82