With graduation season upon us consider not only the places you’ll go, but also the people who will join you in shaping your life’s journey.
Americans are joiners. Ever since de Toqueville articulated it so famously, one of the distinctive features of the American ethos has been our eagerness to join others in myriad ways to accomplish a dizzying variety of objectives. Bible study, sewing clubs, debate societies, mutual aid groups, and you can compile your own list of local, regional, national, and even international groups we join.
The groups we create and join end up making a big difference in our careers, our personal lives, and in the kinds of society we have.
Associating with others develops the deliberative capacities for life in a free and open democracy. This is the laboratory for democracy that so impressed de Toqueville. Associations also help mediate our relationships with government so that the individual citizen does not face state power on her or his own. But also when confronted with the power of wealth, those of modest means can combine with each other to counter its influence.
We also have research to show that associating improves health outcomes and decreases loneliness and the damage it does. Associations also accomplish many useful things from improving our parks, to promoting health, to educating the homeless and much, much more. Plus the rich diversity of associations itself provides a fertile multiplicity of viewpoints and interests that make for a creative stew, constantly bubbling with ideas that feed innovations in commerce and beyond, protecting us against the deadening uniformity of autocratic politics and company towns.
Finally, associating is often simply good for its own sake, offering its own pleasures, like keeping company with friends.
When we have our career interest in mind, we often focus on networking and building relationships with others that will be good for our rolodexes in our professional pursuits. But more often than not, we don’t calculate who to choose as friends and we often follow family habits in terms of volunteering and joining associations. For example, even when we are privileged and live in a dorm when we go to college, one of the most consequential associations we make, those with our roommates, are often the result of random assignments.
So pay attention to your associational life, not only because it is good for you, good for society and fun to boot. But also because it appears to be declining. Ever since Bob Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, we have become increasingly aware of the declining interest in joining groups across the board.
We have since also seen a decrease in the frequency of giving and volunteering across America. Our school’s Philanthropy Panel Study shows that 10 percent fewer Americans gave in 2014 (55.5 percent) compared to 2006 (65.5 percent). Our alumnus Bob Grimm, who runs the University of Maryland Do Good Institute, confirmed in a recent study the overall decline in volunteering, but he also found a 51-year high in the desire among entering college students to do good and to be engaged in their communities. He finds a gap between the expression of good intentions and the actions we observe among emerging generations.
Lest you think we can coast along and wait for actions to catch up with intentions, consider what happens when we don’t develop robust associations that counteract the differences that pull us apart. In Ethnic Conflict and Civil Strife, Ashutosh Varshney finds that formal associations among Hindus and Muslims in India are much more effective at creating bonds that mitigate ethnic violence than the more informal everyday neighborliness that has less institutional form. So think of business and professional groups on the one hand, and letting your kids play together on the other.
It may well be that basic neighborliness comes first and that without it, as Nancy Rosenblum contends, we are more likely to betray our neighbors and send them to concentration camps. Trump and Clinton voters next door to each other may well take care of each others’ houses during vacations. But is this enough neighborliness to prevent anti-democratic betrayals? Or more ambitiously, can shared habits of solving problems together in a formal association help us transcend the increasingly polarized views of the country we share? See Better Angels as an effort of this kind.
Now our partisan differences have not yet congealed into hard differences like ethnicities, but could they without shared associational habits? We increasingly understand that online we can cocoon ourselves in echo chambers of like-minded opinions and that companies will cater to our biases to retain our attention. So it seems that as we continue to migrate more of everything that we do online, we have been too carefree in accepting offers to facilitate and host our friendships and associations online.
As important as these are to who we are and what we want to accomplish with our lives, those of you who are shaping the future need to protect the freedom to make and choose associations. If this freedom ceases to be meaningful, what power will there be for other basic freedoms like speech and religion if how we organize to pursue them is subject to capture and manipulation?
As much opportunity for connectivity that the Internet provides, the ease comes with serious drawbacks. So as you enjoy the ease and speed of digital connections and the conveniences they provide, remember to ask where they are leading and if you are on a journey of your making.
In the end, the friends you make and the associations you join will shape what your world will become.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean