Despite the popularity of the recent slogan "United We Stand," some social researchers question just how "connected" American citizens really are. The time constraints on dual-income families, the sprawling of the suburbs, and the hypnotic eye of television have combined to limit person-to-person contact in our culture. While renewed pledges of patriotism in the wake of September 11th may affect this trend toward disunity, there is still a lot to overcome. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett reports.
David C. Barnett: Forty years ago a new president issued a challenge.
John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your country can do for you... ask what you can do for your country.
DCB: John F. Kennedy's famous phrase from his 1961 inauguration became the rallying cry for a new generation of civic activists. The president was leading his country toward a "New Frontier " of public service. But then, something changed.
Robert Putnam: Everyone in America knows that over the last thirty years or so our institutions have not been working as well as once they did. We don't trust government... we don't trust institutions... we don't even trust each other.
DCB: Harvard scholar and Ohio native Robert Putnam traces the reasons behind such distrust in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam has spent years researching the decline of "community" in American culture. He cites statistics that show steady declines in group activities, such as voting, church attendance and club membership. His book title comes from the fact that even participation in bowling leagues has sharply declined.
RP: The reason I used that example, rather than, talking about how we're no longer voting, or giving to charity as much as we did, or belonging to the League of Women Voters, is that I wanted to indicate that this trend toward the disintegration of our community fabric, it's not just about what you might call "civic spinach" - our civic duty. We're not even connecting with our friends like we used to.
DCB: Putnam cites numerous reasons for this. For one, the pressures of time and money. People claim their lives are too busy for civic engagement, especially dual-income households that have a hard time scheduling regular family dinners. Another culprit is the spread of the suburbs. Columbus-based urban planner Hal Miksch says Americans have drifted apart - because they're living apart.
Hal Miksch: I grew up in Bellefontaine, Ohio, a town of about 12,000 people, where my grandparents truly lived one block over and two blocks down. Walked to school... walked to the grocery store.
DCB: Miksch says such formerly central community areas have been lost as government offices, churches, even YMCAs have moved out to where they have room to expand.
HM: Here in Columbus, we have Cooper Stadium located next to an industrial zone. You go to the stadium to see a ball game and then you leave that area. The post office is located a mile from downtown. There was a time when all those things were located in one place. You'd say "I'm going downtown today because I've got a bunch of errands to run."
DCB: Electronic communication, such as television and the internet, have also been cited as a reason for the breakdown of community. The communal experience of going to a play or movie has been supplanted by prime time dramas and DVDs. The simple pleasures of face-to-face chats are losing ground to e-mail. But, Mt. Union College Professor of Religion Brenda Brasher takes exception to such criticism. Her book Give Me That On-Line Religion makes the case that computers are helping to create a new kind of community.
Brenda Brasher: It's quite possible to go to an in-real-life religious gathering and feel completely isolated. Or have conversations with people and feel completely false or that they're being completely false to you. You know what I mean. You can be in a conversation with a person and not have any idea if you've really connected.
It's also possible to be on-line and have conversations with people that are deeply sincere and incredibly meaningful. And touch upon things that are nearest and dearest to your heart.
DCB: This year, Harvard's Robert Putnam surveyed 40 cities across the county - including Cleveland and Cincinnati - in an effort to further explore the state of civic engagement in the United States. The idea is to discover new ways that people may be connecting, and to stem the trends that have disintegrated the ties of community.
RP: We're going to be trying out some experiments to see if we can… reinvent the Boy Scouts. I don't mean that particular organization, but see if we can come up with some new ideas that will fit the way we've come to live in the 21st Century and will re-connect us with our neighbors.
DCB: A potentially interesting outcome of this work will be to see the impact that the events of September 11th have had on our community connections. We heard plenty of stories of strangers helping strangers after the terrorist attacks . A local food kitchen reported a rise in volunteers over the Christmas holiday. But how long will that last? Urban planner Hal Miksch has seen some positive results from 9/11, but he is also concerned about losing more of our communal ground.
HM: In some ways it does strengthen our sense of community as a country - I know it has done that. I also worry how businesses and individuals will react. Will they now feel more threatened in very dense environment liken that? Will they try to remove themselves from centers of focus. I hope that doesn't happen.
DCB: In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.