Turning the Corner: Lessons from America’s I / we / I century
America today is characterized by deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times. But we’ve been here before.
In the late 1800s, during the last Gilded Age, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. In the aftermath of the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century, however, America became—unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on narrower self-interest. As is well-known, over the last half century that broad trend from an “I” society to a “we” society has been interrupted and reversed. America’s challenge today is to turn the corner and regain the spirit of reform of the first Progressive Era.
Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. In 2006, Putnam received the Skytte Prize, the world's highest accolade for a political scientist, and in 2012, he received from President Obama the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities. The London Sunday Times has called him ‘the most influential academic in the world today.’
He has written fifteen books, translated into twenty languages, including the best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and more recently, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, a groundbreaking examination of the growing opportunity gap. Putnam is now working on a major empirical project about Social Change in America, 1900-2020. Studying long-run trends in economic equality, social solidarity, family formation, political comity, public policy, and cultural change.
About the Jaap Dronkers Lecture
Jaap Dronkers (1945-2016) was one of the most prominent sociologists in the Netherlands. This was partly because he often made his way into the headlines with his research results. Dronkers took the view that interesting findings should always be shared with the general public. Citizens, politicians and journalists had to be informed about inequality of opportunity, the effects of parental divorce, and the sometimes poor quality of schools. This often caused quite a stir, but also confirmed the public role of social science.
The annual Jaap Dronkers Lecture is meant to honor this principle. The University of Maastricht, being his last employer, organizes these lectures to offer a platform to renowned researchers with an important public message. And entirely in the spirit of Dronkers, that may be an "unwelcome message".
This lecture is supported by the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASoS), University College Maastricht (UCM), the School of Business and Economics (SBE) and the SBE research programme Learning and Working.