Playgrounds and athletic fields help us connect because they’re places where people linger and talk to strangers. The lingering is crucial; often, efficiency is the enemy. A recent study by the Harvard sociologist Mario Small, for instance, found that a day care center that encouraged parents to walk in and wait for their children, often inside the classroom and generally at the same time, fostered more social connections than one where parents came in on their own schedules and hurried through drop-off and pickup so they could quickly return to their private lives.
It’s extraordinary, Small observed, how quickly parents – even those with different backgrounds – began to trust and support one another when they had a place to gather. Their shared interest in childcare rendered other distinctions secondary, allowing new and meaningful friendships to grow.
Just as certain hard infrastructures, such as those for power and water, are “lifeline systems” that make modern societies possible, so too are certain social infrastructures especially crucial for democratic life. Colonel Francis Wayland Parker, whom John Dewey called the “father of progressive education,” believed that the neighborhood school was a vital space that, when organized properly, served as a “model home, a complete community, an embryonic democracy.” Schools, Parker and Dewey believed, teach young people not only their roles and responsibilities within the larger and more diverse society, but also the skills and dispositions required to participate as citizens.
Not any school will do, of course. Good schools teach us how to get along; bad schools leave us ill-prepared for the challenges of civic life. In recent decades, too many American states and cities have slashed support for public education. Is it any surprise that our culture now seems more spiteful, and more superficial, than ever before?
In the years I’ve spent observing how shared spaces shape our interactions, the one place that has consistently promoted a modern ideal of mutual respect and enlightenment is the local library. Libraries are not the kinds of institutions that social scientists, policy makers, and community leaders usually bring up when they discuss social capital and how to build it. But they’re among the most critical, and undervalued, forms of social infrastructure that we have.
The reinvention of America’s libraries
Whether the libraries I visited were in tony suburbs like Palo Alto, California, cities like Austin, Texas, or small towns like Suffern, New York, I always saw a surprisingly diverse set of people: all ages, different races and ethnicities, a range of social classes and political persuasions. They saw each other, too, and had no choice but to deal with a variety of small shared problems: when to give up a computer to someone who’s waiting, how to deal with an unruly or mentally ill patron, what to do about the shortage of bathrooms. Spending time in social infrastructures requires learning to deal with these differences in a civil manner.