Robert Putnam, political scientist, Harvard professor, an advisor to three presidents, and author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, has written a new book called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
In Our Kids, Putnam utilizes personal storytelling and data analysis to paint a clear picture of what it is like to grow up poor in America. Putnam's goal is to bring awareness to the plight of children in poverty and shed light on what the experience is like for millions of Americans. Putnam hopes the U.S. is moving towards collective responsibility, and a "return to being a nation where there are only 'our kids,' not just 'my kids.'"
Putnam shares his own experience growing up in a small town in Ohio. He makes no claims to the nostalgia of bygone "glory days." He's quick to own he's a white male who grew up in a predominantly white town. His own house was rather modest in a nice part of town, but nearby children lived and walked to school with him that were less well off. His peers that graduated from high school around the same time as Putnam had similar chances of getting ahead, going to college and becoming financially successful, regardless of their economic background.
After following what happens to a few people from his own town, now in their 60s and 70s, Putnam takes the reader to to the present day, and many people in the same small town in Ohio live along extremely divided class lines. There are now large homes on the lake where he grew up worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, most are located within gated communities, while low-income families reside on the other side of town. There is very little interaction between the wealthy and the poor. In the book, it is as if he is describing two very different Americas.
The content of the book helped give me words for what I have noticed throughout my own life. I grew up in a racially diverse city-and public school system-in the South.. One conversation with my dad about the role that public education can play in helping encourage a "collective responsibility" to all children stayed with me: I was in high school and we were talking about why my parents had decided to send me to public school.
My dad said, "First of all, we don't have much extra money to pay for private school. Second, we support public schools because they serve all kids. Not just some kids. All kids. Once you and your sisters are out of public schools, we will continue to care about public schools because they are the foundation of our society. They are teaching everyone. They accept everyone. That's why we pay taxes. We believe in public education."
Conversations like the one above with my dad are part of the reason I became a teacher and now write and advocate for educational opportunities for all students. We all can use our passions to help others and give a voice to all students who deserve our support.
And, we continue to need more of this.
- My friend Sache, an ELL teacher in Memphis, TN, who is a mother of a teenager and has been known to pick up a couple of her elementary students who would otherwise have to walk long distances to get to school.
- My former colleague and teacher Doug who numerous times went to testify on behalf of high school students who were in minor legal trouble (Doug had extensive experience as a parole officer and so he could speak the 'legal' language that many of the students and their families could not).
- My friend and former colleague Loren, a high school principal, who has visited the homes of over 100 students and personally called over 30 parents in the evening when there was a near tragedy at our school.
We need more of a shared sense of collective responsibility for all children, more people who can model that for our young people, and more parents teaching their kids to do that. And we certainly need more non-parents involved in the lives of our young people so they learn that too.
I don't pretend to have any answers for the income inequality and the plight of the many children who grow up with hardship- and neither does Putnam. That Putnam and others are creating the conversation is a step in the right direction. Let's continue to have a national dialogue about this. And, let's all want for all kids what we want for our own kids.
Image courtesy of "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis"
This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page and other blogs in the series:
Bonnie Lathram is learner experience manager at Getting Smart. Follow her on Twitter @belathram.