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Robert A. Scott

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OpEd: Democracy Requires Community, Community Requires Trust

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Following the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and a particularly vicious partisan campaign against U.S. government institutions, there has been an invigorated discussion about the meaning and instruments of democracy. Many are asking, why are our political divisions so severe? Why do so many people feel alienated? 

Twenty years ago, the scholar Robert Putnam argued in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital that United States society had experienced a large decline in social cohesiveness. He cited research showing that the individuals born before 1930 who had experienced the Great Depression and World War II were more trusting and community-minded than the generations that attained adulthood during the years of Vietnam, Watergate, and a general coarsening of popular culture. With this decline in trust and civic engagement, he found a diminished commitment to the needs and welfare of those beyond immediate family and friends.

One of the consequences of this lack of engagement is a sense of loneliness that has been labelled a public health crisis. It has been linked to shorter life spans, heart disease, obesity, and Alzheimer’s. Putnam and others have written that fewer of us join civic or community organizations, that we are less likely to attend religious services, and that we are prone to overworking. 

An important cause of this decline in social cohesion is the rising rate of income inequality. This in turn is related to declining participation in voluntary associations and trust in others. It is a strike against the notion of a common good. Democracy requires community and community requires trust. Community is based on common interests, common values, and common aspirations. The common good is not supported when the focus is on the individual to the exclusion of other values. The saying, “It takes a community…” may be trite but it is true.

It is unfortunate that the Covid pandemic has kept us isolated because the positive health results of social distancing may exacerbate the decline in social capital. So, just as we consider how to open schools for the social and emotional health of children as well as their learning, let us think further. How might our community organizations work to bridge the divides that separate us and bring us together in common cause? 

Fortunately, we have examples in our area colleges and universities that sponsor community engagement involving faculty, staff, and students. These include Adelphi’s Prize for Leadership for high school juniors; Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement; and St. Joseph College’s Center for Community Solutions. 

With these and similar initiatives, we can encourage the role of the individual in supporting the common good, the strengthening of communities, and the building of social trust and cohesion so essential to democracy.

Robert A. Scott is President Emeritus of Adelphi University.

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OpEd: Voting is an Act of Choice and an Exercise of Voice in a Democracy

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Many people seem to confuse democracy and capitalism. Some seem to think that capitalism defines our system of government. However, our governance is based on democratic principles, including the importance of voting. Capitalism is about economics, not governing.

Two central characteristics of capitalism are competition in the marketplace and the availability of information. Competition supports “choice” and freely available information supports informed choice. Wander supermarkets aisles and look upon the shelves. In each rack there are abundant choices of toothpaste, laundry soaps, and paper products with descriptions of ingredients and safety labels. Nevertheless, we as consumers must be aware; we must determine the truth in advertising.

Democracy as a governing system also has informed choice as a foundational characteristic. We can choose which political party to prefer, which candidate to support, and which policy proposals meet our criteria. However, we must seek the truth and become informed with facts. Given such choices, why do so many fail to vote?

The 2020 Presidential election campaigns spent almost $14 billion dollars and turnout was higher than any other in 120 years – yet one-third of eligible voters stayed away. Some were deemed ineligible, others had a lack of access or were afraid of the unofficial “marshals” monitoring voting sites, and still others were dissuaded from voting by disinformation spread through social media.

We need to do more to control efforts at disinformation, reduce limitations to voting, help voters learn the truth, and ensure the integrity of elections. We can choose to do more to ensure informed choices at the ballot box. But not choosing to do so is itself a choice, a choice that can lead to the demise of democracy.

The historian, Robert Artigiani, wrote that we should “choose to act so the act of choosing remains possible.” By failing to exercise our right to vote and failing to ensure the integrity of information promoted by campaigns, we have lost our chance to choose; we have chosen to act in a way that can lead to losing our right to choose.

That is what happens in authoritarian regimes, even though they may not start that way. Hitler was chosen democratically in 1932 before consolidating power. Putin was elected by popular vote first in 2000 and proceeded to institute constitutional changes in 2018 in order to allow him to remain in power. In both cases, the people made choices that resulted in the loss of future choices because they did not stay informed or act on their concerns in time to avoid the consequences.

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 resulted from a disinformation campaign of falsehoods that persists to this day. For democracy to survive, for there to be “a more perfect union,” we need an informed citizenry that understands and appreciates critical thinking, information literacy, and the instruments of democracy. We need objective journalism as the source of news.

We also need more flexibility in voting to meet the needs of our modern world. Voting by mail and early voting are steps forward but not the only steps we could take. Why is general election voting limited to the first Tuesday in November? Wouldn’t it make sense to allow voting over several days, as in some other countries? What about holding elections on a weekend, when fewer people would have to take time off from work in order to vote? In some countries, voting is mandatory, and fines can be imposed on those who do not vote.

Our vote is our voice. Voting is an act of choice and the exercise of our voice in expressing our values and priorities. We should make it easier to learn about candidates and issues, and vote. After all, our choice of leaders and policies is even more important than our brand of toothpaste.

Robert A. Scott of Seniors Take Action is the President Emeritus at Adelphi University and author of “How University Boards Work,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

This op-ed first appeared on amNY.com.

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Why Is College Tuition So Expensive?

Parents, politicians, and pundits often complain about the cost of college, since tuition has increased 100 percent at four-year public colleges — an increase that exceeds the rate of inflation.

Average tuition is $3,660 at two-year public colleges, $10,230 at public four-year universities, and $35,830 at private institutions, making it difficult for talented students from low-income families to enroll.

The major reason cited for increases at public institutions is the reduction in state support, which has declined nationally by $7 billion since 2008. Increases in healthcare premiums, facilities, recruiting costs, student support services, meeting accrediting standards, legal requirements, and technology upgrades also increase costs.

Some have proposed free tuition as the answer. Unfortunately, while making college free would reduce the price to families, it does not address the fundamental costs of college operations. Branding, athletics, and instruction all require administrative scrutiny and audits.

Families can learn about college costs and student success by using the federal College Scorecard website at collegescorecard.ed.gov to compare institutions’ average annual costs and graduation rates. On Long Island, for example, Hofstra’s cost is $31,815 while its graduation rate is 62 percent. At nearly one-half the cost, St. Joseph College’s charge is $16,976 while its graduation rate is second highest in the region at 70 percent.

One structural problem that is rarely addressed is that of curriculum requirements. Requiring excessive credits for graduation can increase costs for colleges and students. Another structural problem is that of creating scholarships by discounting tuition, which leads to an sticker-price increase for all students in order to provide enrollment incentives to some. The result is a decrease in the net revenue available for basic services and quality enhancements.

Some colleges discount tuition by more than 60 percent. The benefits of higher education are known and we as a country need more citizens with advanced degrees. The correlations between college completion and employment, income, health, and civic participation are strong.

Education and political leaders must find ways to make college affordable to more people by making changes in the institutional cost structure, controlling tuition and other increases even more rigorously, and funding more scholarships.

Robert A. Scott, Ph.D., is president emeritus of Adelphi University and author of How University Boards Work.