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At Founder’s Week Lecture, Acclaimed Author Discusses “American Dream” in Peril

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The long-held American credo that hard work and determination lead to success and prosperity has dramatically eroded for our nation’s youth, according to Robert D. Putnam, Ph.D., the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and bestselling author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Dr. Putnam explained the dilemma to nearly 300 St. John’s students, faculty, and administrators on September 20 as part of the University’s 22nd Annual Founder’s Week. St. Vincent de Paul, the 17th-century priest and social reformer, established the Congregation of the Mission, which has sponsored St. John’s since its opening in 1870. Through Founder’s Week, the University explores Vincent’s legacy and its enduring relevance.

The decline of the “American dream” is a subject Dr. Putnam knows well. In his most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, he examines the growing “opportunity gap” through the lens of life stories of both affluent and impoverished children from across the country.

“The ‘opportunity gap’ is one of the most important problems facing our country today,” Dr. Putnam told the audience at the D’Angelo Center, on the Queens campus. That gap—which refers to the lack of resources and opportunities for poor children compared to those enjoyed by wealthier families—has widened over the past 30‒40 years. Affluent children, Dr. Putnam explained, have an overabundance of resources, leading to “increased residential, educational, and marital class segregation.”

“This is the very opposite of the American dream,” said Dr. Putnam, who observes that children’s success in America today depends largely on their zip code. “If we allow this gap to continue to grow, America will become a very different and far less pleasant place to call home.”

“The University is honored to host Dr. Putnam—a world-renowned author and educator who has spent his entire career advancing groundbreaking social science research,” said Christine Hammill-Cregan, J.D., Associate Director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “We’re fortunate that Dr. Putnam is here at St. John’s to discuss Our Kids, a book that tackles the essential goal of elevating the poor—which is at the heart of Vincentian education.” 

Held this year from September 20 to 27, Founder’s Week includes lectures, service opportunities, and other events that illustrate the University’s Vincentian and Catholic mission. The 2016 theme, entitled “Vincentian Education: Illuminating Minds, Creating Opportunities, Serving the World,” marks 200 years of Vincentian education in the United States.

Dr. Putnam stressed that America faced this same problem before. “But ordinary people came together and invented the public high school in 1910, giving all children free and equal access to education. This ushered in a prosperous time known as the ‘American century’,” he explained.  

“I think we can fix this problem again,” Dr. Putnam noted, “and if we do, it will be because students and educators like you became part of the solution.” 

Indianapolis, IN, native Benjamin Behrend ’22Pharm.D. was encouraged to attend the lecture by his Discover New York (DNY) professor. DNY is a core course that introduces students to the St. John’s and New York experience. “I’m glad I know more about this issue in our country from a speaker of Dr. Putnam’s stature,” said Benjamin.   

The lecture was cosponsored by St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, The School of Education, Campus Ministry, and the Vincentian Institute for Social Action (VISA), and was organized by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society.