CSAD: Robert Putnam’s Highly Anticipated Talk

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Kenyon shelled out thousands of dollars to have Robert Putnam launch the busiest day of CSAD’s biennial conference on Thursday, and ultimately, that was money well spent. Putnam offered a charismatic mix of anecdotal and quantitative evidence, but most importantly, he demonstrated genuine enthusiasm for solving the problem of economic inequality during a conference where “soft” factors like passion can get lost in academic noise.

For those who couldn’t make it, Putnam devoted the first half of the hour to a personal story about his upbringing in Port Clinton, Ohio, where 80 percent of his graduating class went on to make as much as or more than their parents in terms of both education and income. One of his classmates, however, failed to graduate high school. Putnam compared this anonymous classmate’s granddaughter, “Mary Sue,” to his own granddaughter Miriam, a sophomore at Haverford. In stark contrast to Miriam’s comfortable past and bright future, Mary Sue’s life has been strife with hardship; she was abandoned by her parents, struggled with poverty, got in trouble with the law and suffered verbal and physical abuse by boyfriends. Putnam then cited data and showed graphs to demonstrate that Mary Sue’s story is just one of many, a result of the “scissoring” of the top and bottom tertiles in parent education in the U.S. In the past 30 years, the top tertile has achieved, learned and made more, while the bottom tertile has done less of each. Putnam even weaved in his disappointment in the decline of “social capital,” or community involvement—his specialty and the topic of his nonfiction claim to fame, Bowling Alone.

But couldn’t we have expected more? Putnam filled two-thirds of Rosse during Common Hour at the tail end of the year, his audience a self-selecting, intellectually curious group of students, faculty, community members and fellow conference speakers. So when Putnam spent 45 seconds explaining the x-axis as time and around two minutes total covering graph structure, he clearly demonstrated an underestimation of his audience. And to know your audience is critical—not just to convincing your audience, but to challenging them and teaching them something new.

To me it seemed that one of Putnam’s primary objectives was to show that inequality of opportunity is a problem—a point that may seem given to Kenyon’s left-leaning student population, but that was actually contentious within the CSAD expert lineup. So it’s not that his argument was unoriginal or uninteresting; it was neither. But he could have stepped it up, maybe condensed his explanation of Port Clinton and graphs by delivering them more efficiently and adding something we couldn’t have read on EconLit or in the Times.

Putnam was compelling, articulate and convincing. But his audience didn’t need to be convinced as much they needed to be challenged.

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