- Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
- by Robert D Putnam
- Simon & Schuster
- Copyright 2015
- 261 pages
Rating (for the entire book) – 7 out of 10
This morning I finished Robert D Putnam’s Our Kids. Monday I got done with everything but the final ten pages before I slipped off to sleep about 10 p.m. Tuesday morning, I finished the book over my morning coffee.
Chapter 5 – Community (pages 191-226)
After mildly disappointing me with Chapters 3 & 4, Putnam rallied in Chapter 5. It’s difficult to put my finger on why I liked Chapter 5 better; suffice to say that the material just seemed more interesting.
In discussing the importance of community, Putnam compares two different parts of the Philadelphia area – 1) the wealthy “main line” suburbs and 2) the inner city Kensington neighborhood (which was the setting for the movie Rocky). Putnam compares two single mothers and how their communities helped – or didn’t help – them deal with the challenges of raising two daughters.
Putnam focuses on four ways that communities can support their members – 1) social networks, 2) mentors / savvy, 3) neighborhood organizations, and 4) religious organizations. It is in this section that Putnam comes closest to stating Our Kids’ thesis –
“If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn’t good: in recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids” (p. 205).
Chapter 6 – What is the be done? (pages 227-261)
Unfortunately, Chapter 6 is a big letdown. Putnam proposes solutions, but even he seems to realize that he doesn’t know the answer. However, he states that the problem with “our kids” is a growing crisis and that ignoring the crisis is tantamount to ignoring global warming – “… but in both cases, if we wait for perfect clarity, it will be too late” (p. 228).
Sorry, Dr. Putnam, but I don’t think that argument is good enough. For one, he’s comparing a natural science (climate science) to a social science (sociology). Natural sciences are much more subject to laws and generalization than are the social sciences. If society is to make the expensive investments that Putnam proposes, we must be more certain about both a) the nature of the problem and b) the outcomes we expect to attain. Failure to understand the problem one wishes to address is a cardinal sin for any scientist.
Another shortcoming of the book lies in Putnam’s failure to focus more on the changing nature of work. Today’s knowledge-based economy is brutal to those without advanced degrees. Putnam starts his analysis in 1959, before automation, global trade, and stagnating economic conditions combined to make things very difficult for blue-collar workers. The 1950s economy did much to create the good times that Putnam enjoyed as an adolescent.
I could go on, but I’ll stop…
My reaction to Putnam’s Our Kids is very similar to my reaction to his Bowling Alone – both are terrific at detailing some of society’s pervasive problems. Each book addresses a pressing issue and tells the reader why the issue matters.
Both books have the same shortcoming – solutions aren’t easy. Putnam is a social scientist (as am I), and the challenge of devising a better society is that there are so many relevant variables. If you read Our Kids with the mindset that you are going to better understand these issues, you will not be disappointed. If you read the book looking for The Answer, you’re likely to be disappointed.