So I have been taking an inventory of the “social capital” around here. Last time, inspired by the work of Marty Johnson and the Isles project in Trenton, I took some dimensions of the social capital in my own neighborhood. As I understand Johnson’s idea, for all the financial capital that is poured into new housing, improved parks, and similar neighborhood amenities, there is still a need for social amenities, as measured by the number of neighbors you know by name, the amount of civic involvement residents take in their neighborhood, and so on.
Johnson and his now 25-year-old nonprofit, trying to revitalize Trenton neighborhoods, are gauging these elements of social capital as they proceed. In my neighborhood we are no better off in terms of social capital. Here, though, no one’s doing anything about it — we’re all too busy paying the mortgages and the taxes.
Social capital counts in places beyond the neighborhood. At Harvard (and at similar research universities) they are talking about a new book by a former dean and current professor, Harry R. Lewis, called “Excellence Without a Soul — How a Great University Forgot Education.” Says Lewis, in an author’s note on a website: “In recent years the university has had its head turned ever more by consumerism and by public relations imperatives, to the detriment of its educational priorities. In short, money and prestige rule over principle and reason.”
At Princeton this past commencement week, they dug deep into the commencement budget and brought out some high-priced guns for public appearances: writer and NPR commentator David Sedaris for the comic relief; and former President Bill Clinton for some lofty idealism and practical inspiration.
I wonder if 30 or 40 years from now anyone in the Class of 2006 will recall any aspect of their commencement as vividly as I recall mine from 1969. Back then we took some pride in the fact that we had no outside speakers — commencement was not a media event. That left my roommate Gary Diedrichs and I wondering what to do to entertain our parents on a long day preceding the graduation ceremony the next morning.
We decided to have a cocktail party in our dorm room. On the way back from the liquor store we ran into Julian Jaynes, lecturer in psychology and master of one of Princeton’s first residential colleges, an alternative to the then-dominant eating clubs. We invited him to join us. He did. For the next hour or two our parents — four high school graduates — got a taste of an undergraduate preceptorial at a selective university.
Years later, when Jaynes became a celebrity — interviewed on national television by Dick Cavett, no less — for his improbable best-selling book, “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” my mother immediately bought a copy. Jaynes, upon hearing this news from me, promptly instructed me to relay to my mother a shortcut approach to reading the book so that the layman could more easily understand it.
At Princeton, to give due credit, some attempt is still made to allow principle and reason to rise over money and prestige. The remarkable part of James Axtell’s Princeton history (U.S. 1, May 31) was how much of the undocumented terrain of the university he was able to chart. I have written before in this space about the Daily Princetonian and its annual (and highly informal) Reunion gathering hosted by Larry DuPraz, the now retired but still involved production supervisor.
At this year’s party — with DuPraz standing at my side — I had the opportunity to read a section of the Axtell book aloud. The section profiled the Prince and DuPraz, mentioned several prominent Prince alumni, including some in attendance as I read their names, and concluded with an apt description of the very event at which we all were gathered. Sweet.
But even a Princeton reunions can fall prey to the lures of the best and the most that money can buy. Later that evening I stopped by the tent at which the Class of 1966 was hosting its 40th reunion. Somehow the name of Ron Landeck ‘66 came to mind. He was the tailback on the nearly undefeated 1965 football team, and the last Princeton football player ever to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I met Landeck in the summer of ‘68 in Chicago, where he was studying law at Northwestern. I recall being impressed by the guy’s down-to-earth manner and engaging personality — the exact opposite of the isolated hero-athletes that former Princeton president William Bowen decried in his 2001 book, “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values.” So what’s Landeck up to now?
I found Landeck in the crowd, introduced myself, and tried to start a conversation. He may have been able to hear a word or two from me, but I could hear even less from him. In the background the rock band blared. I could have waited for an intermission, but there was none. The Class of ‘66, in a bigger and better spending mode, had programmed nonstop rock music at its reunion. As one band took a break, another band cranked up. All music, all the time.
To re-phrase an excerpt from the Dalai Lama’s “Paradox of Our Age:”
These are times of fast food, but slow digestion;
steep profits, but shallow relationships;
more noise (much more),
but less communication.