Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”
Harvard’s Robert Putnam has been called the by the Sunday Times the world’s “most influential academic.” His last best-seller, Bowling Alone, remains among the most influential books of the new millennium, and his latest, Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis, promises to be just as impactful. Putnam joins me in hour three of today’s show.
HH: Now you’ll want to play very close attention to the next few segments. My guest is Professor Robert Putnam. He is the Malcolm professor of public policy at Harvard. You probably know him as the author of Bowling Alone. He has been called by the Sunday Times of London the most influential academic in the world. He is the author of a brand new book which drops tomorrow, Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis, which I was just talking about with Rick Santorum in the last segment. I’m pleased to talk to him now. Professor Putnam, welcome. It’s great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RP: Thank you, Hugh. I’m delighted to be with you.
HH: I have to begin by telling you there are some very odd things about this book that resonates with me. First of all, I’m from Buckeye land like you are.
RP: Yes, sir.
HH: Secondly, last year I was in Port Clinton for the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie.
RP: No kidding? Great.
HH: Yeah, and I also live in Orange County and spend one day a month on the Orange County Children and Families Commission in the heart of Santa Ana.
RP: No kidding?
HH: So all of your observations just kind of ring with me. But I would to start with the grand one, which is this is a very distressing book. Our kids are not in good shape right now.
RP: Yeah, that’s right, Hugh. And in some respects, it was a tough book to write. You know from having glanced at the section on Orange County, for example, or for that matter, the section on Port Clinton, or any of the other sections, on Philadelphia or…
HH: Atlanta, yeah.
RP: …Atlanta or Bend, Oregon, even, that there is this growing opportunity gap between kids coming from relatively well-off families and kids coming from relatively poor families. And this opportunity gap has grown very substantially all over America. It’s a gap not just about race, but it’s a class, a gap on class terms. And I didn’t realize, as I say in the book, I myself did not realize until we did this research how much harder it has gotten for kids from modest backgrounds to get a fair start up the social and economic ladder. Look, I though, you know, I came from a fairly modest background in this tiny little town, Port Clinton, and I’ve done pretty well. And I thought well, if I can do that, why can’t other kids do it? And I had not realized until we began doing this research in how many ways, as I made my way up the ladder, I was dependent upon other people pitching in and helping out.
HH: The informal mentoring, and that’s, the one thing that I didn’t find in Our Kids is a lot of detail on Putnam’s life, because I gather you’re a graduate of the Port Clinton High School 1959. I don’t know where you went to college. Where’d you go to college, Robert?
RP: A small town, a small college called Swarthmore in Philadelphia.
HH: You bet. And then, I know it very well. And of course you’ve been at my alma mater for many, many years teaching now. But the path you traveled, who were the informal mentors that you talk about in this book so much that helped Robert Putnam become, I mean, I’m sure you hate people to bring up the Sunday Times piece, but I always like to do it, the most influential academic in the world? Who helped you? Who nudged you?
RP: Well, anybody who’s had you know, significant success, I don’t know your life at all, of course, but I know you’ve had a lot of success, and I assume that something like this is true for you, too. There are a lot of people in your professional life who, I mean, teachers and colleagues, even, who have been really helpful in my life. But if you go back early enough, there was a coach in Port Clinton who, I was kind of a nerd in Port Clinton, and I sort of thought of myself that way. But there was a football coach who thought, you know, you ought to develop this other side of you. I was a lousy football player, I have to say, Hugh, but he was right. It actually was good for me to, I played center, and I was always getting beat up. And that was, in a strange way, kind of good for me to realize that my abilities on the football field depended upon working with other people. It wasn’t just something I did. I couldn’t just go home and study and write a nice essay and get a good grade. I had to work with the other people around me. And I had to work really hard to make, you know, not very great progress. And so he was, in that context, he was teaching me, I mean, he would never had said this in a million years, but I would use the language he was teaching me important lessons about life.
HH: Absolutely. And in fact, I’m jumping ahead here in the book, and given we only have 20 minutes or so, I’m going to skip around. The stress you put on extracurricular activities, and the opportunity for children of the upper middle class and higher to indulge them, and the shut doors on kids in pay for play systems, where stigma is attached even to receiving a scholarship to participate, is immense. And for Robert Putnam to say that, I am very thrilled, because then educators around the country, it’s not Hugh Hewitt or a conservative or an anti-Common Core person saying that, it’s Robert Putnam saying you’ve got to kill this pay for play, and you’ve got to reintroduce extracurriculars into the lives of your students, or they’re going to suffer for it.
RP: Yeah, I’m glad you reacted that way, Hugh. I mean, I’ve taken some teasing from my colleagues who say you mean you’re going to solve all the problems of iniquity in America by having people go to French club? But actually, and what you and I just were talking about illustrates this…
RP: Extracurricular activities were invented in America by education reformers just about a hundred years ago now. God did not invent high school football. Education reformers said it’s well and good that we’re teaching kids the three R’s. But actually, if you’re going to get along in this civilization, you’ve got to have, solve what we now call solve skills. You’ve got to, you know, have grit. You’ve got to learn grit. You’ve got to learn how to cooperate with other people. You’ve got to learn that you have to work hard now, and you know, maybe a year or two before you see any payback from that hard work. Those reformers said in effect to Americans across the country look, right, you’ve got to pay taxes to support schools. But actually, part of our obligation just as community is you’ve got to also invest in the activities that will give kids solve skills, because it’s better for everybody in town, not just, you know, it’s not just a private fun that we’re trying to provide kids when they go onto the football field. Football was not fun at all for me. I was learning, however, some lessons. And the good taxpayers of Port Clinton paid for my spikes. They paid for my pads. They paid for a coach to coach me. They paid for the Friday night lights on the football field. All of that, they paid for. And they also paid, independently of that, they paid for me, they paid for my trombone and they paid for five years of trombone lessons, and they paid for a conductor in the high school band and so on. All of those things, they were investing in solve skills, because it was good for everybody in town.
HH: And increasing thereby, I want to throw one of your big terms out at our audience, it includes Steelers fans, so we have to break it down, the collective efficacy of a community, which you talk about in Page 218 of Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis. And I don’t even know how you would summarize it. We have about a minute to the break. How do you summarize this concept of collective efficacy, which makes so much sense to me, but may elude easy reporting to people?
RP: Yeah, well, what it says is, just think in the neighborhood if, and I know Pittsburgh, so I’m happy to talk about the Steelers. In Pittsburgh, a generation ago in working-class neighborhoods there, there was no such thing as an unauthorized mom. Everybody in the neighborhood worried about everybody’s kids. And everybody collectively, you know, prevented painting on walls, and prevented kids from just hanging out, and worked collectively to try to improve the life of all the kids. That’s what’s missing. Now I have to say there are neighborhoods in Pittsburgh where it’s still there.
HH: Oh, I don’t believe that for a moment, but we’ll come back and talk about that after the break.
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HH: Professor, in the middle of this conversation that you are entering with Our Kids, there is the launch underway of something called Common Core, which this audience knows a lot about. I try and remain neutral and talk to both advocates of it and enemies of it. It is, however, a massive change whether anyone likes it or not. Do you think it’s well-spent energy and money to change everything at a curriculum level right now given the distresses that you write about in Our Kids?
RP: Well, look, I don’t want to, I’ve got enough controversies in maintaining my own case that I don’t want to eagerly seek out others. And I am not a specialist on curriculum. So I’m going to, I’m afraid, be a little agnostic about whether the Common Core is going to be good or not so good for American students, and whether it fits or doesn’t fit with our traditions of local control and so on. But what I do want to say is the things that we need to do in schools to close the opportunity gap, that is to help poor kids get a fair shake, the same kind of shake that my grandchildren are getting, or anybody, probably many of your listeners who have grandchildren, and those grandchildren are doing well, and the families are stable and you know, decently well off, those kids are fine. But what I’m worried about is the kids who are coming from homes and often fractured families that they’re not fine. And to help those kids in school, I don’t think that the Common Core is, wouldn’t be my top priority. I think, and here’s what’s going to be controversial, maybe, with some Americans. I think we have to realize that what we have an obligation to do, in our own interest what we have an obligation to do is aim not for equal inputs to schools, but to aim for equal outputs from schools. And by that, I mean when poor kids come to school, when rich kids come to school, my grandchildren to go school, they bring, all the kids there are bringing in their backpacks, the support they get from their parents, and the money that their parents contribute to extracurriculars and so on, and they’re bringing high aspirations for college, and so on. But when poor kids go to school, what they’re bringing in their backpack is any of that. They’re bringing gang violence from the neighborhoods they live in, and they’re bringing pathologies at home and so on, as you know from reading the story about the two schools in Orange County.
HH: Oh, absolutely. Troy and Santa Ana High School, I’ve been on both campuses. They could not be more different.
RP: Well, and if you look at the input measures, that is how much money’s being spent, the teacher-student ratios and so on, those two schools are virtually identical. But if you look at the output measures, that is test scores and how kids are doing, and whether they go on to college and so on. The good schools could hardly be more different. Santa Ana is one of the worst high schools in California, and Troy High School is one of the best high schools. That’s not because of things that, it’s not because of the curriculum differences between the two schools. It’s not because of the, you know, administrative differences in the two schools. It’s because the challenges of actually teaching and learning in the gang areas around Santa Ana High School are just so much different from the challenges and pleasures of teaching and learning in Troy High School.
HH: Absolutely. In fact, the gut punch in Our Kids, and again, America, I’m talking with Professor Putnam from Harvard who wrote Bowling Alone. His brand new book drops tomorrow, Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis. I think it’s mandatory reading for everyone who cares about the future of the country, but especially if you’re the parent of a child in school or a teacher, or just an active, engaged citizen in your community, is that schools amplify the effect of achievement motivation from their homes. That’s on Page 169. You also write that schools are an echo chamber in which the advantages and disadvantages that children bring with them have effects on other kids, which is what you were just saying extrapolated out one degree to the kids in the desk next to them.
RP: That’s right.
HH: So it just seems to me that Common Core, however effective or ineffective, is missing a lot of the boat. The boat is the entire envelope in which the child grows up, and you can’t replace the disaster of a one parent family versus a two parent family with higher math standards.
RP: Yeah, it’s but you know, here’s the hard pitch I have to say, because I think I don’t want to hide from people what are the challenges in fixing this problem. We really are going to have to think of these kids in poor schools as our kids. In an earlier era, and this is the reason for the title of the book as you know, in an earlier era, when my parents were, when I was growing up, my parents thought about all the kids in town – the rich kids and the poor kids, and everybody as part of our kids. They did not just mean my sister and me. And that’s what is, I think, to some extent, missing from the current conversation.
RP: We shouldn’t think of these poor kids as somebody else’s kids. They’re also our kids, and I mean that in a very material sense. If we don’t help these kids, we and our children are going to pay higher taxes forever.
HH: And when we come back after break, we’ll talk about the implications of that. Don’t go anywhere.
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HH: There is buried in this book a very ominous warning, Professor Putnam. I read, “And inert and atomized mass of alienated and estranged citizens disconnected from social institutions might under normal circumstances pose only a minimal threat to political stability, with any menace muted by the masses’ very apathy. But under severe economic or international pressures, that inert mass might suddenly prove very volatile.” So you’re suggesting this isn’t about a remote problem, Professor Putnam. It’s about actually how the republic endures.
RP: Yeah, I really do think that. I think, look, I’m not trying to say that we’re going to have a fascist takeover tomorrow in America, nothing like that, but…or a communist takeover or whatever. But I am saying that that observation that you could have a group of people who are deeply disconnected from everything, and not have much effect, and then suddenly something else happens from outside, like you know, there’s an international crisis or a major economic crisis or whatever, and that inert mass suddenly becomes much more threatening to everybody. Indeed, that’s the more general argument I’m trying to make in this book, Hugh. I’m trying to say look, this isn’t just about being nice to other people. The American growth rate for everybody in America is reduced by about three or four percent every year because we’re not investing in these kids. It’s not only them that’s hurt. The whole country is hurt. My grandchildren are hurt, because there are going to be, and I’m not talking about welfare, actually. I’m talking about the low productivity we’re going to have because these kids that I’ve talked to, the kids you know from reading the book, they’re not going to be great workers at anything.
HH: You know, Professor, the only disagreement I have, I was telling Rick Santorum this at the start of the hour, I think he’ll be carrying Our Kids around with him and saying here is this liberal professor from Harvard saying everything I agree with except on the solution. And there I am more concerned about, for example, you talk about residential segregation. I actually don’t believe the federal government has any capacity to innovate here. I’m sort of a radical devolution of authority guy, because everything I’ve seen that comes from the federal government doesn’t work X 10. And if they would just give us the money, Orange County could figure out what to do in Orange County. But you seem to be a skeptic of that. And in fact, at one point, to the shock and dismay of many of my audience, you have kind words to say about the progressives who actually, I think, brought all this on us. Even as McGuffey was thrown out, they brought in centralization to federalization.
RP: Well, you know, you and I have a different reading about that historical period. But let me say what my own view is.
RP: I believe that this problem is not going to get fixed, and certainly not fixed in the first instance, in Washington. I believe that there are important things that government, including the federal government, can do. And maybe you and I disagree about that. I think it would be great if we have a national debate about, a fact-based debate about what can we do about these, this growing opportunity gap. My greatest hope is we agree now in the coming months and in this next year or so that this is a real problem, and what we have a debate about is not who’s to blame, but how can we fix it. What’s the evidence say about how we can fix it. But I believe in the end, when this problem gets solved, it’s not going to be solved because somebody pressed one big national legislation saying there shall be equal opportunity in America. I believe it’s going to begin by being fixed in, just as happened a hundred years ago when the real green chutes of progress began to appear in a period of great scandal and inequality in places like Galveston and Toledo, and you know, Santa Ana, and Bend, Oregon. And I just, you know, about five minutes ago, I got an email from somebody in a small town in Iowa, Davenport, Iowa, saying you’re right and we’ve got to fix the problem beginning right here in Davenport.
HH: You see, I think you’re right on your…
RP: And I say hallelujah.
HH: And I think you’re absolutely right on your diagnosis, which is why I called up your publisher and said let me talk to Professor Putnam for a good chunk of his day before pub date, official put date is tomorrow, and why I was talking with Rick Santorum about it. I think you’ll persuade people about the opportunity gap, because you cannot not persuade them. All the data is there. Every single thing is there. But when it comes to something like the trust question, and people can read about what that is, I don’t know that current elites have any idea how to bridge that gap, Professor, so deep is the suspicion of the left behind of those who are running institutions. They, you know, it sort of comes back, I don’t want to minimalize your book, but Hillary’s email, private email server, is the big story of the day. Well, most of the people that you’re talking about here have never even had email, much less their own private email server. How in the world do elites ever deign to look down at the people, let them eat cake style?
RP: Well, you know, I’m sympathetic, in many respects, to that argument. Oddly enough, I’ve heard exactly the same argument come from a fairly, you would think of her as a left wing Congressman, the Congresswoman from Port Clinton, my hometown, who made exactly the same point that you’ve just made.
HH: Marcy Kaptur?
HH: Was it Marcy Kaptur?
HH: Yeah, she’s a veteran. She is a lefty, you’re right.
RP: Okay, but she just finished saying yesterday in the Washington Post the problem is that these people in Congress can’t walk in the shoes of these poor people, because they live in a completely different universe.
HH: Well, she’s right. She’s absolutely right.
RP: That’s what I’m saying.
HH: She’s right, and so the question becomes, as Charles Krauthammer says, politics is fundamental and first, because without politics, nothing changes. What do you do? I’m persuaded, but I’m not persuaded that the solution is out there in front of anyone on how to rebuild opportunity in America, and certainly not through the federal government.
RP: Well, can I…
RP: …make just a quick reference to an earlier instance of rapid social change…
RP: …that seemed to be impossible, politically, and then suddenly became possible overnight?
HH: Please, if you’ll only do it after the break. We’ll come back for one more three minute segment. Three more minutes, and I’ll let you, I’ll give you the floor.
HH: Be right back.
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HH: I really recommend strongly go and read it. I’m sure Rick Santorum is reading it as we speak. Professor, when we went to break, you wanted to give the big, I didn’t want to cut you off, so I wanted to make sure you had this three minute block to lay out what ought to be done.
RP: I wanted to use this historical example that’s vivid to us because of the celebration of, the commemoration of the Selma and Pettus Bridge episode this last weekend.
RP: If you had talked to wise, political analysts six months before the Selma march, they would have said we are never in a million years going to get the end of segregation in the South. We’re not going to get black people into any circumstance where they can vote even because of the deadlock in Congress over all of these issues. And they were right. That was the arithmetic in Congress at that time. And then the moral voice of these folks, black folks mostly in Alabama, overnight changed the conversation, because what they did was to say look, look at what’s happening. This is not America. You may agree or disagree about this or that particular policy, but it’s not America to have this happening. And I don’t want to claim that I am anything like the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King. That’s not what I’m saying. But I am saying that I’m hoping that I and other people can call attention to the realities facing these, the kids on the bottom, and say look at this. Do you really think that this is the way America ought to be behaving? And I’m hoping that, you know, across party lines, that that may get enough attention that people will say you know, he’s right. We just can’t, we’ve got to do something about this. Now let’s have a fight about what to do about it. I’m happy with that. But I think that we could really change the political calculus in effect by making a kind of a general argument that it’s un-American to be treating these kids this way.
HH: You know, I think people will agree on that. But I also think that the backdrop of this is you know, the iWatch debuted today. And you can get one for $10,000 dollars if you want. And so that’s the backdrop as incredible affluence shades a lot of this stuff.
HH: And it will require men and women of the left, or the center-left, to step up and say the problem originates in our families falling apart, and is amplified by our schools, which are not in the process of thoroughgoing reform, and are now off chasing a shiny, new object called Common Core, when they ought to be recalibrating things as basic as whether or not teachers ought to be in unions. But do you think the left has the moral courage to say what needs to be done, Professor Putnam, is those answers are there?
RP: Well, I believe that this is a purple problem. Parts of the problem of the growing opportunity gap, you see most clearly through conservative, that is red lenses. Those are the ones you’ve highlighted now, and I agree with those. But parts of the problem you see most clearly through blue progressive lenses, and I would say there, for example, this growing enormous income gap in America.
HH: Well said. We are unfortunately out of time. I am going to send this around to everyone, Professor Putnam. Thank you for spending time with us. Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis in bookstores tomorrow.
End of interview.