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For this first week’s discussion, let’s look back at the call to service and commitment in president inaugural speeches. President John F. Kennedy: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” George H. W. Bush: “And I am speaking of a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done. We must bring in the generations, harnessing the unused talent of the elderly and the unfocused energy of the young. For not only leadership is passed from generation to generation but so is stewardship.” George W. Bush: “We must live up to the calling we share. Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment; it is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment.” President Barack Obama: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
Then check out the “Bowling Alone” web site at: http://www.bowlingalone.com/, especially the “Social Capital Primer” tab and the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America: https://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/. Reflect on what the author, Robert Putnam, is saying about the state of our social capital in the United States. Social capital, according to Putnam, is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. A weakened state of social capital means less trust in government and thus a weakened civil society, as a whole. Putnam’s argument is simply that we no longer bowl in leagues like we did decades ago; we bowl alone. We no longer get together with others to build community – and this has a direct translation, for Putnam, into a decline in participation, discussion, and therefore trust in our democracy.
Now, with what you have learned about the state of social capital in the United States, what do you think about the call to service to all Americans and the remarks made by presidents about the responsibility we all share? Do you believe that Americans have been answering this call to service to strengthen the foundations of our country? Do you believe that our social capital has indeed been weakened over the past few decades, as Putnam claims? Reflect on the societal organizations/groups you belong to, volunteer for, and what you see of other people volunteering and belonging to groups. Consider the communities you live in. Are we “Bowling Alone” instead of in groups as in decades past?
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