Thursday, May 8, 2008


Many things are challenging America’s civic culture. One of the most far reaching is the collapse of continuity.

Since our nation’s founding American communities have been held together by an institutional memory of history and culture. Every community had its “founding fathers” or “town elders” who stewarded their uniqueness. Changes occurred, people came and went, but there was a core of continuity that assured civic institutions and civic value were maintained.

This civic culture is disappearing. Recently a survey of potential homebuyers discovered that 73% desired new homes. That means a house built in a subdivision that may not have even been platted a year ago. This disengagement from existing housing stock, and existing neighborhoods, has led to a marked decline in volunteerism and community involvement across America.

If gets worse – when local citizens do get involved it is usually about national issues (Iraq, abortion, gay marriage) not community concerns. Ignoring local issues can mean the abandonment of local history and preservation. When people forget what made a community unique they do not notice when that history is bulldozed aside for a national big box store or new subdivisions. Occasionally, new streets in these subdivisions are named after some local event or the new shopping mall is named for the estate it demolished. These out of context place names are fast becoming our sole link to our past and to what built a viable democracy.

This does not seem to concern most “Gen-Xers” and “Millenniums”. The generational shift is toward immediate return, leaving context and memory out of equation. They discard their Ipods and cell-phones for upgrades every few months, so why not do the same with neighborhoods and communities?

Surveys continually document Americans’ critical lack of knowledge about geography, history, and basic civics. This ignorance is getting worse every year. It does not bode well for the future of our civic values and our public institutions.

We are in danger of “inversion”. A stagnant lake can invert bringing dangerous gases to the surface that kill-off wildlife. Inversion can also happen to a community – community uniqueness, common purpose, knowledge, and continuity are replaced with aimlessness and immediacy. Such an inversion will kill-off a community’s civic pride and the wellbeing all those who live there. We need to find ways to reconnect people, especially young people, with America’s civic and civil traditions and values. Only then can we assure a basis for a common dialogue on, and commitment to, our future.

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