Civic Engagement, Community, Reading, and Intellectualism

This excellent op-ed in today’s NY Times reminded me to blog about this issue because it’s important to me. Let me quote a few of the more eloquent sentences:

“There is a basic social divide between those for whom life is an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge, and those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy. The shift toward the latter category is frightening…A book must be an ice ax to break the seas frozen inside our soul….The retreat from civic to virtual life is a retreat from engaged democracy, from the principles that we say we want to share with the rest of the world. You are what you read. If you read nothing, then your mind withers, and your ideals lose their vitality and sway.”

The issue of civic engagement has grown more acute for me as I talk with my high school peers and realize that very fundamental knowledge about current affairs and community/civic activities is lacking. Virtually no one reads a paper on a regular basis. Virtually no one reads a book for pleasure. The Center For Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement has a plethora of research and stats on youth civic engagement. Civic engagement needs to become a priority in schools.

What’s scary, however, is that these trends are increasingly affecting the adult population as well. Many of you have probably heard of or read Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a book whose title means “More Americans are bowling, but are bowling alone not with friends or in clubs.” I recommend reading an online summary of Bowling Alone and then reading in full Better Together, also by Putnam. This talks about the value of communities and social capital. (From a business perspective, I also found this book helpful as so many companies are premised on a strong feeling of community among its customers.)

A classic Civic Engagement Factoid is “If you had to choose between 10% more cops on the beat or 10% more citizens knowing their neighbors’ first names, the latter is a better crime prevention strategy. If you had to choose between 10% more teachers or 10% more parents being involved in their kids’ education, the latter is a better route to educational achievement.” Or “Quitting smoking or joining a club, it’s a tough call which would improve your life expectancy more.”

Learn more about this issue and see what you can do to build community, engage in civic affairs, and most important, spread these data and research to your peers.

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