Citation of Merit Award Speech – Harold Decker ’67

Emeriti Club Gathering and Awards Program
Kalamazoo College
Harold J. Decker ’67
October 22, 2022

Thank you, Phil (Phil Carra, Class of 1969), for the warmth and sincerity of your introduction and for your friendship for over 70 years.  Sincere thanks as well to Donna Lambert and the Emeriti Club Leadership Council for honoring Bruce Benton and me with Citation of Merit Awards.

With your indulgence, I will use the allotted time to express my belief in the importance of the Emeriti Club, and organizations like it, that promote social contact and civic engagement.  The Emeriti Club is one of an array of organizations that form “social capital,” an awkward metaphor that sociologists coined to describe the connections among individuals – voluntary associations and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. 

In 1831, Alex de Tocqueville, a 25-year-old, French aristocrat, fascinated by the American experiment in democracy, sought and obtained a commission from a suspicious, July Monarchy in France, to examine prisons in the United States.  Tocqueville later admitted that the penitentiary study was a pretext he used as a passport to examine in detail all the workings of, as he put it, “the vast American society that everyone talks about, and no one knows.” 

The brilliant product of his examination, Democracy in America, has been referred to as the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.  In that work he noted that:

“Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.  There are … a thousand different types …Nothing, in my view, more deserves attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

In 2000, Robert D. Putnam, a Political Scientist at Harvard, published a book with the odd title, Bowling Alone, that decried America’s civic decline as well as its social fragmentation that began in the mid-1960s.  Putnam made a claim that cut to the quick of American identity: Americans just aren’t doing things together anymore.  He claimed that by choosing to engage in activities individually, rather than communally, we’re putting at risk America’s capacity to build social capital and undermining our national character that Tocqueville described in the 1830s. 

Based on a vast amount of statistical data, Putnam described the aggregate loss in membership and member volunteers in many forms of civic organization, typified by bowling leagues, which had suffered decline in membership, while the number of people bowling alone had increased.  Until the publication of Bowling Alone, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm these broken bonds have done to our physical and civic health, nor had anyone exalted their fundamental power in creating a society that is happy, healthy, and safe. 

After I read Bowling Alone and the vast analytical debate that it stimulated, fate placed me in a position with the American National Red Cross in 2002 that provided me the opportunity to invite Bob Putnam to speak to the volunteers and paid staff at the organization’s national convention. 

Between 1956 and 1996 there was a 61% decline in Red Cross membership.  I wanted our members to hear that the Red Cross was not the only thread in the fabric of American society that had lost strength in the last half of the twentieth century, and I wanted them to hear why this phenomenon was occurring, why it was critical for the nation to arrest the decline in civic engagement and what we as citizens can do to reweave the fabric of our communities. 

Very generally, the suspected reasons Putnam cited for the breakdown in social capital after 1965 included:

  • The pressures of time and the increase in the number of double income families.
  • Suburbanization, commuting and urban sprawl.
  • The effect of electronic entertainment, primarily television at the time Bowling Alone was published, but now, twenty-two years later, our leisure time has been further privatized by access to the Internet, the ubiquity of social media and recently the isolating effect of the Covid pandemic.
  • Generational change, the replacement of an unusually civic generation by several generations that are less embedded in community life.

Why is it critical that we arrest the decline in civic participation?

The decline in trust, which is the raw material of social capital and sociability, is evident in any number of changes in American society:  the rise of violent crime and civil litigation; the breakdown in family structure; the decline of intermediate social structures like neighborhoods, churches, unions, clubs, and charities; the general sense among Americans of a lack of shared values and community with those around them. 

It should also be no surprise that recent studies have shown that social capital operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individual lives.  People whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with trauma and fight illness more effectively.

What can we do to re-weave the fabric of our communities?

In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Putnam, and his colleague, Shaylyn Romney Garrett, offer a historical account of trends in public commitment from 1900 to 2020.  The empirical narrative arc is simple.  A dog-eat-dog Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century prompted ever greater social engagement and reform in three stages-Progressivism, the New Deal and the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when communitarian activity reached its apex in the United States.  But, in the mid-1960s social activity declined and dog-eat-dogism returned and is now again uppermost.  To support that analysis, a mass of survey data and statistics is mapped onto what the authors call “I-we-I” inverted, U curves, which show a rise and fall in economic equality, political co-operation, social solidarity, and a sense of shared American culture.

To reverse this trend and create an upswing, the authors call for profound changes in prevailing attitudes: acknowledgment of the menace of income inequality and the distribution of wealth, recognition that all work has dignity, a new commitment to the public good, and readiness to argue such matters out in a healthier, more deliberative democracy. 

Skeptics wonder if, in such a vigorously competitive capitalist nation, those profound changes in thinking are probable.  And whether, given how long the arguments over unmerited disadvantage have lasted, they are likely to end soon. 

My investigation and experience cause me to align with those who believe that we can’t grieve social change, we the people must guide it, as a new breed of reformers did in the Progressive era.  In 1914, the journalist, Walter Lippman-barely twenty-five years of age at the time-called for the mastery of history by an active, inventive, and disciplined citizenry.  He contended, it must be done – not by someone who claims to be a wise and superior being, but by the American people themselves.  Americans, in other words, must eschew the corrosive, cynical slide toward “I” and rediscover the latent power and promise of “we” that Tocqueville saw in the American character in the 1830s.  Thanks to all of you for your participation in this event and for patiently listening to these thoughts on the importance of participating in voluntary associations and social networks like the Emeriti Club.