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Commentary: Local Institutions and the Power of Social Capital

Ed Woell
Rich Egger
Ed Woell

In a previous commentary I explained how one critical element in the making of my new book, Confiscating the Common Good, was academic time and space. In turning my attention to the book’s content, I will aim this commentary toward a different matter: small-town institutions. A focus on such establishments in my book can impart a crucial lesson for our community. Let me explain what it is.

Much of my book is about the power people create when they join together, strengthen one another, and work for a common cause—otherwise known among scholars as social capital. The concept became popular two decades ago in Bowling Alone, a book by the political scientist Robert B. PutnamYet Putnam’s understanding of social capital was owed to Alexis de Tocqueville and his classic, Democracy in AmericaTocqueville argued that since the early United States had an equality of socio-economic conditions (except, as he noted, among Native and African Americans), many citizens sought the help of others in order to advance both themselves and their communities. This perceived need for mutual aid created many local institutions and voluntary organizations, whereupon social capital accrued and a democratic society was born.

Drawing on Putnam and Tocqueville, my book shows that social capital in the small towns of eighteenth-century France was often found in religious institutions—not just parish churches and their lay organizations but also establishments headed by Catholic religious orders. The social capital yielded by these institutions was reflected in the many local services they provided: educating the youth, aiding the poor, and caring for the most infirm. But when French revolutionary laws closed these establishments, small towns lost most of their social capital and grew deeply divided. Revolutionary supporters subsequently tried to supplant religious institutions with political clubs and a local National Guard. Yet for a variety of reasons, such replacements rarely supplied the same amount of social capital once owed to a religious infrastructure.

As with the French communities in my book, small towns like our own are now facing institutional demise: health-clinic closures, school-district consolidations, and declining participation in churches and service clubs. And similar to what French revolutionaries did in the wake of an institutional void, many are now trying to replace lost social capital—albeit in our case with alluring digital technology. Some affected by these closures, for example, have sought new interpersonal connections through social media and dating apps.

Just as it was in revolutionary France, however, our attempt to replace real things with cheap stand-ins has left our community worse off than before. According to Putnam and other researchers, while online networking can reinforce connections already made in person, it rarely generates social capital anew. Moreover, most studies show that extensive use of digital media not only polarizes our politics; for many it also increases personal isolation, alienation, and depression. As one social-media critic put it, “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others aren’t built to foster deep human connections; they’re built to maximize our time on their platforms.”

Recognizing what institutional demise has historically meant, what social capital is and how it must be built, and what digital technology does to not only myself but also many students, I choose not to teach college courses online and will likely retire if required to do so. Offering more online courses may attract additional students in the short run, but it also will result in unintended consequences—perhaps even causing some schools to unravel. Since these offerings require little infrastructure and make classrooms more redundant, shutting down smaller state-supported campuses will likely grow more appealing whenever budget cuts must be made.

As I told my students this semester, at the core of all learning is one thing: a human relationship. The people of small-town revolutionary France viscerally understood this. They knew the power of social capital for what it was. Sadly, too few of us do today. Confining my teaching to the classroom is more than a personal choice; it is a political act on my part—a commitment to the full humanity personified by me and my students. The broader lesson offered here is thus clear: to embody our entire selves in local institutions is to endorse the power of people, and therefore democracy itself. Still another democratic point related to my book, Confiscating the Common Good, will be discussed in a third and concluding commentary; I hope you will listen.

Ed Woell is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.