Posted by: bluesyemre | August 9, 2019

Populism can be beaten back by #libraries. Really

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A book excerpt and interview with Eric Klinenberg, author of “Palaces for the People”

MANY IDEAS have been put forward to explain the rise of populism in the West: economic insecurity, a backlash against immigration and fake news, to name but a few. Another on the list might be the lack of shared spaces where people from different walks of life can meet and mingle. If politics has become tribal, perhaps that is a result of people being walled off from others—in some cases literally—eroding the sense of commonality and community.

That is the intriguing message of a recent book by Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and the author of “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life” (Crown, 2018). The title comes from a phrase used by Andrew Carnegie, an American steel baron of the early 20th century, to describe the thousands of public libraries he helped build with his donations.

To Mr Klinenberg, social infrastructure is the public spaces which bring people together so that bonds can form. In his book, he documents how it produces benefits ranging from economic growth to better governance, at a time when social media seem to pull people apart.

Below, The Economist’s Open Future initiative is publishing an excerpt from the book on what the design of university campuses means for the ethos of students and the wider community. It is followed by a short interview with Mr Klinenberg on social infrastructure in the 21st century, and in particular, libraries.

* * *

Designing college campuses—and community
Excerpted from “Palaces for the People” by Eric Klinenberg (Crown, 2018)

Designing campuses that promote learning and community building may be a relatively new priority in public education circles, where resources are scarce, but it has always been a central concern of universities, which play an outsize role in modern societies. The late Richard Dober, a renowned scholar at Harvard and MIT who designed college campuses throughout the world, estimated that, as of 1992, about 40% of the American population had spent at least one year as a full-time student on one of the nation’s 3,500 or so college campuses. “Campus design is a civic art that resonates with meaning and significance for our culture,” he wrote. “The Greeks had their agora, the Romans their Forum, the Middle Ages their cathedral and town square, the Renaissance their palaces and enclaves for the privileged, and the 19th century their centres of commerce, transportation and government. The campus is uniquely our generation’s contribution to communal placemaking and placemarking.” When designed well, it should “promote community, allegiance, and civility, while at the same time encouraging diversity in discourse and vision.”

The time we spend on college campuses shapes our ideas about what we want to pursue and who we want to become. It changes our social networks and work opportunities. It breaks down ethnic and religious divisions, leading to what we once called “mixed marriages” between people who’d otherwise never form families together. And even as a growing number of people on both sides of the political spectrum express concern that colleges—and particularly partisan student groups—have become inhospitable to civil debate about controversial topics, there’s no better institution to prepare us for civic life in democratic societies, giving us the tools we need to understand difference, evaluate evidence, and engage in reasoned dialogue with people who don’t share our perspectives or values.

This hasn’t always been the case. Many of the earliest European universities were designed to solidify social boundaries, not open them. In “Campus: An American Planning Tradition”, the Stanford professor Paul Turner recounts that the first universities, in Bologna and Paris, were part of the city, and students typically lodged with their families or with townspeople. As universities developed, local entrepreneurs built halls and hostels for the students. But many school administrators disliked this arrangement, as did the aristocratic parents of university students, and universities began to erect gates and walls to separate their sacred grounds from the profane communities in which they had been embedded. New College, at Oxford, built the first enclosed quadrangle that housed all university functions in 1379. Many schools followed, giving rise to the model of the college as a segregated residential community as well as an educational institution where students studied, largely in private rooms, under the direct tutelage of a learned instructor.

Turner identifies several reasons for the use of the enclosed quadrangle in British colleges, from efficient land use in crowded towns to the influential tradition of the cloistered monastery. “Simply from an architectural point of view,” he writes, “the monastic and collegiate ‘programmes’ were nearly identical: the housing of a community of unmarried men and boys, with space for sleeping, eating, instruction, and religious services.” The walls that divided the college campus from the town served defensive purposes, protecting students and faculty not only from occasional wars and local conflicts but also from townspeople. “The early histories of Oxford and Cambridge abound in incidents of town-gown antagonism leading to fighting, warfare, and murder on both sides,” Turner reports. “The ability to close off a college at a few gate-points also gave college authorities the advantage of greater control over the students, a concern that was a major factor in the growth of the collegiate system.” By 1410, Oxford required all students to live in colleges rather than in the town, and that policy remains intact, albeit only for freshmen, today.

Oxford and Cambridge opened up in other ways, however. In the 16th century, when a graduate of Cambridge named Dr. John Caius raised concerns about the health risks of confining students to stagnant, foul air, the university built its first three-sided courtyard. (Some attribute the form to rising fashions in France’s new chateaux.) Whatever its origin, Turner writes, the new, open campus spaces “suggested a more sympathetic and less defensive attitude toward the world outside the college.” So too did the schools’ push to reform admissions policies. During the 17th century, the great British universities made their first efforts to incorporate local, non-aristocratic children, and a larger proportion of the general population entered higher education than at any time except the twentieth century. These trends influenced the first American colleges, which were more accessible and expansive than anything in the Old World. […]

From the beginning, the architects of America’s universities rejected the monastic model that influenced European institutions, and designed them to be deeply social places. The primary motivation was intellectual. American campus architects wanted to build universities where knowledge from different fields would circulate freely, across academic domains and into the world as well. The intellectual life they promoted was never meant to be contained or disciplined. They aimed for cross-pollination, and the campus—its classrooms, libraries, dormitories, and dining halls—was an instrument of convergence.

American campus designers were also intent on building new communities, and they had novel ideas for fostering social ties. Harvard was but one of many American schools to organize student life around colleges, each with its own spaces for dining, studying, and fraternising. Princeton developed dining societies, which later became eating clubs, as the foundation for college social activities. Students played a role in creating campus culture too. In 1776, five men at the College of William and Mary started a new student society, Phi Beta Kappa, which eventually added chapters at universities across the country, becoming the first intercollegiate fraternity.

Fraternities whose agenda was more social than academic are, of course, another hallmark of American universities. […] Both as organisations and also as physical places, fraternities are an exemplary form of exclusive social infrastructure. The residential houses often contain dining facilities, indoor and outdoor recreational areas, bars, common rooms for entertainment, and ample party space, all of which encourage members to anchor their lives around them. Since most fraternities select people with similar backgrounds and interests—ethnicity, race, religion, class, or often sports (and occasionally academics)—joining one is an effective way to avoid the diversity and difference a university offers. Members gain brothers and sisters, but too often lose the chance to be part of something greater.

[…]

Fraternities are not the only divisive social infrastructures on college campuses. American universities rarely built the kind of high walls that protected colleges at Oxford and Cambridge from the communities around them, but many schools, particularly those in cities, have buttressed their exclusive admissions standards with elaborate physical and organisational systems that separate students and faculty from neighboring people and places perceived as dangerous. Today, large campus security operations reinforce these perceptions at universities throughout the country, and make the distinction between insiders and outsiders especially sharp.

Conventionally, college administrators and city planners think of “town/gown” divisions as especially bad for residents, not students, because they’re the ones excluded from campus amenities and stuck dealing with a raucous population of young people who haven’t learned to be good neighbors. But universities that cut themselves off from surrounding communities also hurt students, giving them a false sense of superiority and depriving them of opportunities to learn from their neighbors and develop the civic skills that they—and all of us—urgently need.

______________

Excerpted from “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.” Copyright © 2018 by Eric Klinenberg. Used with permission of Crown. All rights reserved.

* * *

The Economist: What is social infrastructure?

Eric Klinenberg: Social infrastructure is the set of physical places that shape our interactions. The most democratic and accessible social infrastructure are classic public goods, such as libraries, schools, parks, and playgrounds. Community organisations and commercial gathering places can be social infrastructure, but if they are exclusive, they tend to foster divisiveness by promoting in-group solidarity rather than collective wellbeing.

The Economist: Can you tie the rise of populism and fraying of a democratic ethos in America to a decline in social infrastructure? Conversely, will more or better social infrastructure help America’s politics?

Mr Klinenberg: Shared spaces give us a chance to recognise our commonalities and establish mutual respect. Shared activities, whether in public gathering places, pubs or union halls, facilitate solidarity, even across group lines. My book tells the story of my Jewish great-grandfather, who immigrated from Prague to Chicago in 1890 and quickly discovered that participating in American democracy meant learning to live and co-operate with members of ethnic groups he had never encountered in Europe. In recent decades, we have taken away the common ground that made this cooperation possible. We have built a more competitive and segmented society, and these conditions nurture the dangerous forms of populism that flourish today.

The Economist: Is the type of social infrastructure needed in the digital age different or the same as in the past?

Mr Klinenberg: After the 2016 election, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a public letter claiming that Facebook would be a crucial social infrastructure that reinvigorates democracy. But since then, we have learned that social media is doing much more to promote hate, propaganda and division than to generate the “meaningful communities” that Zuckerberg promised. If you want to know what kind of social infrastructure tech leaders really value, take a close look at the campuses they have developed in Silicon Valley: Offices designed for serendipitous encounters between members of different teams. Cafeterias with communal tables and free food. Athletic fields, walking paths, roof gardens, party spaces.

Why? Because they want their employees to enjoy being at work so much that they won’t want to leave. And, as Mr Zuckerberg knows better than anyone, the way to do that is not to get employees to use social media more often. It is to design and build the best social infrastructure that money can buy.

The Economist: How can government best support the creation of social infrastructure? Should they build and maintain it, or encourage the private sector to provide it? Does it need a new philanthropist to built new “palaces for the people”?

Mr Klinenberg: Public-private partnerships have always played an important role in building America’s social infrastructure. Andrew Carnegie, after all, donated money to construct nearly 1,700 public libraries in America, on the condition that local governments take over all the costs of running and maintaining them. Carnegie’s generosity came at a time when there was no federal income tax. Imagine how many more “palaces for the people” America could have built had it simply imposed a fair tax on him and other successful industrialists.

Today I fear we are heading in a similar direction, cutting taxes for the most affluent people and hoping that their philanthropy will help solve our problems, whether it is student debt or social infrastructure. Unfortunately, philanthropy is always partial, selective and unequally distributed. The only way we will get comprehensive social infrastructure is if it is a public good that government provides.

The Economist: Who does social infrastructure well? Who can America learn from?

Mr Klinenberg: America has a lot to learn about social infrastructure. After all, our president’s biggest infrastructure idea is the wall, which is the most anti-social infrastructure project one can imagine, I often point to the Netherlands as a leader in integrating social infrastructure into climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. The Dutch have learned to build parks, plazas and playgrounds that double as flood-management systems, so that investments in ecological security improve the quality of everyday social life, too.

Japan has built social infrastructure into its transit infrastructure system. In Tokyo the stations are largely underground and protected from the kind of inundation that New York’s endured during hurricane Sandy. They are also clean, well-maintained and enlivened by all variety of commercial activities. Several stations are now social destinations—a far cry from what we experience in New York, where the transit experience has become a war of all against all.

The Economist: I want to probe more about social infrastructure’s answer to populism, authoritarianism, post-truth and the open society—not simply social cohesion, which is its first-order effect… There is something far deeper here. What is it?

Mr Klinenberg: I think the answer is closely tied to my discussion of libraries. Libraries play an especially important role in promoting democratic culture—and challenging authoritarianism—because of the way they are staffed, managed and programmed. They are radically inclusive. They are governed by professionals who abide by powerful vocational norms: pursuing knowledge with the best tools at our disposal; being non-judgmental; respecting the dignity of all persons; maintaining privacy; treating everyone, regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, age, ability or citizenship status as equals. If, on one side of the battlefield, demagogues and tech titans are pushing us towards a post-truth era, on the other, librarians are pushing back.

But I fear that we are starving our libraries just when we most need them. In New York, the so-called “progressive” mayor, Bill De Blasio, wants to cut millions from the library budget, which could mean shuttering vital branches on weekends. In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government of Doug Ford is slashing the Library Services budget in half. If you don’t think this matters, visit your local library this week and witness all the extraordinary things happening there. Every time a library closes its doors our society becomes a little less open, our democracy a little more vulnerable. If we don’t reinvest in libraries, and in social infrastructure more broadly, what will keep us from the dark age that so many people fear?

The Economist: Right. But in a digital age when information can exist in multiple places at once and people can organise online, do we really need these physical forms of social infrastructures or libraries? When I raised this in an earlier question, you chided Mark Zuckerberg for his failings. And he is an easy target. But what of digital social-infrastructure done well? Can you imagine what a 21st-century social infrastructure ought look like? After all, I think you are going to need to, because the library budget is going to get slashed and Zuck isn’t going away…

Mr Klinenberg: I don’t have to imagine 21st-century social infrastructure. I just saw it, on my visit to the Oodi Library in Helsinki (pictured at the top of this page). It is a library that feels like a spaceship in the center of a bustling metropolis. It has open, light, airy spaces for reading and writing. It has rooms for all kinds of collaborative work, from video gaming to podcasting and sewing. It has rooms for community meetings, a theatre, affordable food and lots of programming. What is more, it is open everyday, from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and nearly as long on weekends.

But places like Oodi exist outside of Scandinavia, too. Cities across the planet have invested in new, modern libraries that are designed for 21st-century needs. Check out the brand new library in Austin, Texas, which features maker space for local techies and enormous open spaces for children and their grown-ups. Or the smaller, new, suburban libraries in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which are bustling with activity every day and evening—author readings, 3D printing, story-time for families, community meetings on local issues that need to get aired.

If you are in Canada, these descriptions may remind you of the new library in Calgary. In each of these cities, residents collectively decided that a public investment in social infrastructure would generate all kinds of benefits. In Columbus, Ohio, voters decided to tax themselves for the privilege of better libraries. So I’m not giving up the fight for public social infrastructure easily. And millennials, who use libraries more than any other generation—see the Pew data—will be with me.

https://www.economist.com/open-future/2019/05/31/populism-can-be-beaten-back-by-libraries-really


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