The growing divide between the haves and have nots in America is “the most important domestic problem facing our country today,” renowned political scientist and bestselling author Robert D. Putnam told an attentive audience of students, educators and community leaders gathered at Mount Wachusett Community College on March 25.
Over the past four decades, “America has become a more segregated society in terms of education. Our country has become more divided and split among social lines than it used to be. This is a crucial matter for the future of our country and our economy,” Putnam, a Harvard University professor, said during an hour-long presentation filled with staggering statistics, tragic anecdotes and sporadic humor.
The event, sponsored by MWCC’s Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement, was made possible through a grant the college received from the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“Bowling Alone,” one of Putnam’s 14 books, was the inspiration behind President Daniel Asquino’s drive to make civic engagement a cornerstone of an MWCC education. President Asquino was joined by Fagan Forhan, Assistant Dean of K-12 Partnerships and Civic Engagement, in welcoming the guest speaker. A booksigning and public dialogue followed the presentation.
Using examples from his latest book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Putnam explained that when he graduated high school, 80 percent of his classmates had achieved a higher level of education than their parents. As he and his peers went on to raise families of their own, they did so with the expectation that their children would do even better.
Those, like Putnam, who pursued a college education, did indeed forge a path that enabled their children and grandchildren to have greater opportunities, including access to higher education, extracurricular activities and personal enrichment. Meanwhile, classmates who did not attend college at first fared well in the local workforce, but then the economy tanked, factories closed and stores boarded their windows. Subsequently, their children and grandchildren are now worse off, and the condition is similar throughout the country.
“We’ve been here before,” Putnam said, reflecting on the class divide during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement over a century ago to make public high school education free and accessible led to the national ethos of the American Dream – the belief that through hard work, everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
“That turned out to be the best decision that Americans have ever made because it raised the productivity level of all Americans,” Putnam said. “Everyone was better off, and it leveled the playing field.”
Similar to the investment the nation made a century ago in public high school education, a renewed commitment to invest in education is needed to solve the class gap of the 21st century, Putnam said.
Solutions, he said, include greater support for early childhood education from birth to age four, and an investment in public education that provides equal access to sports, arts and other enrichment activities, rather than only to those who can afford to “pay to play.”
He also advocates for criminal justice system reforms, higher pay for teachers who work in low-income schools, more intensive mentoring for children, and encouraging stable, caring families by boosting wages.
Expanding access to higher education is also part of the solution he said, explaining that community colleges are like highway “on ramps” that lead to a better life.
“A shared investment in everyone’s kids was key to American growth in the past, and it is key to restoring the American Dream today.”