Things I Know 38 of 365: I don’t know my neighbors

Come and knock on our door.

– Don Nicholl

I tripped into a twitter “conversation” tonight on “21st Century Literacy Skills.” I probably sounded like a jerk, but I didn’t mean to.

No, let me start somewhere else.

The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself…If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community.

Thus wrote L. Judson Hanifan as quoted by Robert Putnam in Democracies in Flux.

The thing is, Hanifan, who coined the term “social capital” was writing in 1916.

Almost a century later, we’ve repackaged and digitized the problems Hanifan was seeking to address in his writings.

We have invented and populated countless online communities, and we continue struggling to come into contact with our neighbors.

We have been an intensely socially connected people for hundreds of years. To think otherwise is to conflate the problem.

The skills we need more than ever are the skills Hanifan championed – the ability to meet your neighbor, work toward an understanding of one another and build a reciprocal relationship with one another. This work is difficult.

It always has been.

If I were to knock on my neighbor’s door tomorrow in an attempt to build some sort of mutually beneficial relationship, I’d be hard-pressed to know where to start. By many measures, he and I should have easiest go of building common cause. The politics, infrastucture, weather, sidewalk upkeep, general neighborhood happenings all make us the most likely of allies. I know his name is Robert. Most times we pass, he can’t remember mine. I know there are other people in his house, but I don’t know their names or how their connected.

If you and I are friends on Facebook, think of how much more I can know about you in 5 minutes than I know about Robert after almost two years of being neighbors.

In reverse, think of how much I won’t know about you after 5 minutes of Facebook creeping.

I have access to more of the almost 7 billion souls on the planet than ever before, and I’m still connecting with those I most easily understand.

Online spaces give me the easier access to those of similar minds but different circumstances. Our causes are common, but our realities remarkably different.

I am linked to you, but we do not belong to the same club.

We’ve been here before. We have struggled with these problems. We like to pretend they’re new.

Writing of the popular rhetoric concerning the decline of social capital in the United States, Putnam writes, “Public perceptions of decline may be deeply influenced by such rhetoric and, as in decline of religion, we must exercise caution in assuming that there was actually a golden age when things were better.”

If nothing else, Hanidan’s writings point to this idea: Helping people learn to connect to those within their reach and leverage those connections is not a 21st Century Skill, but a human one.

One thought on “Things I Know 38 of 365: I don’t know my neighbors

  1. I was just signing up for conference sessions for ASCD in March, and of the several hundred sessions offered, I'd say about 90% have “21st century” somewhere in the title or, at the very least, the description. Drives me nuts!

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