Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

Great Debate (The)—Do Americans Today Have Civic Virtue?
Lesson 3
Academic Standards
Philanthropy Framework


Having formulated an initial opinion on whether or not today's Americans exhibit civic virtue, students will defend their positions and analyze those of others during a structured classroom debate.


One to Two Forty-Five Minute Class Periods


The learner will:

  • formulate a conclusion concerning whether or not today's Americans have enduring civic virtue and support that conclusion with at least two examples suitable for classroom debate.
  • provide a rational, defensible support for his/her position during a classroom debate.
  • identify and record opposing arguments.
  • construct logical responses to arguments on the opposing side.


  • Summary of Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (Attachment One)
  • Summary of AARP Survey on Civic Involvement (Attachment Two)
Handout 1
"Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital"
Handout 2
AARP Survey on Civic Involvement (Summary)

Instructional Procedure(s):

Anticipatory Set:
Use a show of hands to determine how many students argued that most citizens do have enduring civic virtue versus those who argued that most citizens exercise civic virtue only in times of national crisis.

  • Call on five or six students to read their essays to the class alternating between those who believe most Americans do have civic virtue (pro) and those who believe most Americans do not have civic virtue (con).

  • Arrange the class into smaller groups (not more than six or seven per group) based on their pro or con position. If a class of 24 is evenly divided on the topic, you would have two groups (one on each side of the topic).
    Give each group 10-15 minutes to do the following:
    • Read their essays to each other.
    • Decide on the two best examples to support the point of view of the group.
    • Appoint one group member to write the examples on the board; all members of the group should be prepared to explain the examples if called on by the teacher.

Note: It is a good idea to use a timer for this part of the lesson to keep the students on task. You may want to adjust the time depending on student abilities in a particular class.

  • When all groups have put their examples on the board, the spokespersons from each group should be given one to two minutes to explain the examples (why they show that civic virtue does or does not exist) and to answer questions about what the example means. This is not the time to defend or attack the examples, just to make sure everyone understands what they are.

Note: Students should be instructed to write down the examples used by the opposing side during the debate because they will need to make reference to at least one of those examples in their final essay.  

  • Students should now be given five minutes to go back to their groups and develop responses to the examples given by the opposing side. Assign each group two examples for which they must develop a response. Their goal is to show that the examples are not true or that they are not sufficiently documented to draw the opposition's conclusion. For example, the group that says most Americans have enduring civic virtue may use an example that many people came to the aid of the September 11 victims. The group that believes most U.S. citizens do not have enduring civic virtue should develop an argument explaining why this example does not show most citizens have enduring civic virtue (they might support their argument using responses to past crises).

  • All members of the group should be prepared to present arguments refuting the examples given by the opposition in the debate. Use a random system for selecting the actual spokesperson. Depending on the amount of time left at this point, each side should be given one to two minutes for its rebuttal.


The assessment of the soundness of the arguments presented will come when the students attempt to find real evidence to support the position they took as they read two articles which have been assigned for homework.

Further assessment can be made of student participation in the group discussions. The following should be observed:

  • Did the student actively participate in defending his/her position?
  • Did the student provide logical and defensible support for his/her position?
  • Was the student able to identify the opposing points of view?
  • Did the student provide logical responses to arguments on opposing side?

School/Home Connection:

As homework, distribute and assign reading of two articles: Bowling Alone (Attachment One) and the AARP Study of Civic Involvement summary (Attachment Two). Students should be instructed to mark specific examples of American activities showing that most Americans do have civic virtue, and facts and examples that would prove most Americans do not. Students should identify a minimum of three examples for each position.

Bibliographical References:

  • Putnam, R. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy (July 1995).
  • AARP Web site: http://www.aarp.org/press/oldpress/pr121897.htm [no longer available]
  • "New Survey Shows American Public Involved in their Communities," AARP Newsletter (December 1997).

Lesson Developed By:

Kathleen Ling
Mt. Pleasant Public Schools
Mt. Pleasant High School
Mt. Pleasant, MI 48858


Handout 1Print Handout 1

"Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital"

Robert D. Putnam, Dillion Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, describes decreasing participation in U.S. civic organizations and suggests reasons for this trend. Since its initial publication in the Journal of Democracy, this article-presented here in abridgment-has stirred a vigorous public debate and made “Bowling Alone” a metaphor for contemporary life in America.

Reprinted by permission of the Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright (c) 1995. Journal of Democracy, July 1995.

Whatever Happened to Civic Engagement?

We begin with familiar evidence on changing patterns of political participation. Consider the well-known decline in turnout in national elections over the last three decades. From a relative high point in the early 1960s, voter turnout had by 1990 declined by nearly a quarter; tens of millions of Americans had forsaken their parents' habitual readiness to engage in the simplest act of citizenship.

It is not just the voting booth that has been increasingly deserted by Americans. A series of identical questions posed by the Roper Organization to national samples ten times each year over the last two decades reveals that since 1973 the number of Americans who report that "in the past year" they have "attended a public meeting on town or school affairs" has fallen by more than a third (from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993). Similar (or even greater) relative declines are evident in responses to questions about attending a political rally or speech, serving on a committee of some local organization, and working for a political party. By almost every measure, Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, despite the fact that average levels of education -- the best individual-level predictor of political participation -- have risen sharply throughout this period.

Not coincidentally, Americans have also disengaged psychologically from politics and government over this era. The proportion of Americans who reply that they "trust the government in Washington" only "some of the time" or "almost never" has risen steadily from 30 percent (30%) in 1966 to 75 percent (75%) in 1992.

Our survey of organizational membership among Americans can usefully begin with a glance at the aggregate results of the General Social Survey, a scientifically conducted, national-sample survey that has been repeated 14 times over the last two decades. Church-related groups constitute the most common type of organization joined by Americans; they are especially popular with women. Other types of organizations frequently joined by women include school-service groups (mostly parent-teacher associations), sports groups, professional societies, and literary societies. Among men, sports clubs, labor unions, professional societies, fraternal groups, veterans' groups, and service clubs are all relatively popular.

Religious affiliation is by far the most common associational membership among Americans. Indeed, by many measures America continues to be (even more than in Tocqueville's time) an astonishingly "churched" society. For example, the United States has more houses of worship per capita than any other nation on Earth. Yet religious sentiment in America seems to be becoming somewhat less tied to institutions and more self-defined.

How have these complex crosscurrents played out over the last three or four decades in terms of Americans' engagement with organized religion? The general pattern is clear: The 1960s witnessed a significant drop in reported weekly churchgoing -- from roughly 48 percent in the late 1950s to roughly 41 percent (41%) in the early 1970s. Since then, it has stagnated or (according to some surveys) declined still further. Meanwhile, data from the General Social Survey show a modest decline in membership in all "church-related groups" over the last 20 years. It would seem, then, that net participation by Americans, both in religious services and in church-related groups, has declined modestly (by perhaps a sixth) since the 1960s.

For many years, labor unions provided one of the most common organizational affiliations among American workers. Yet union membership has been falling for nearly four decades, with the steepest decline occurring between 1975 and 1985.

The Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) has been an especially important form of civic engagement in twentieth-century America because parental involvement in the educational process represents a particularly productive form of social capital. It is, therefore, dismaying to discover that participation in parent-teacher organizations has dropped drastically over the last generation, from more than twelve million in 1964 to barely five million in 1982 before recovering to approximately seven million now.

Next, we turn to evidence on membership in (and volunteering for) civic and fraternal organizations. These data show some striking patterns. First, membership in traditional women's groups has declined more or less steadily since the mid-1960s. Similar reductions are apparent in the numbers of volunteers for mainline civic organizations, such as the Boy Scouts (off by 26 percent since 1970) and the Red Cross (off by 61 percent since 1970). Fraternal organizations have also witnessed a substantial drop in membership during the 1980s and 1990s.

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: More Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by ten percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.

Handout 2Print Handout 2

AARP Survey on Civic Involvement (Summary)

Found on the AARP Web site: http://www.aarp.org/press/pr121897.htm [no longer available]

December 18,1997

New Survey Shows American Public Involved in their Communities Survey Dispels Common Myths about Civic Mindedness in our Society

(Washington, D.C.) -- Is America's social fabric coming apart at the seams? Has America completely lost its sense of community? Despite the alarms raised in recent years about Americans becoming less involved, a new AARP study shows that the nation’s social fabric appears to be in relatively good shape, and interesting patterns of public participation are reflected in communities around the country.

The study, Maintaining America’s Social Fabric: The AARP Survey of Civic Involvement, identifies levels and forms of civic involvement from a large cross-section of age groups. It measures and assesses the extent to which Americans are involved in and attached to their communities, where their involvement is, and their attitudes toward one another and their government.

“Conventional wisdom would have us believe that we are a nation made up of disinterested, disengaged and uninvolved people. Our survey clearly shows that this is not the case. We found that people are engaged at a local level where they can feel the impact of their efforts. Ninety-eight percent (98%) of those surveyed reported being involved in at least one activity that connects them with people outside of their household," said Jane Baumgarten, a member of AARP's volunteer national board.

Membership in organizations is higher than previously reported. The average respondent has more than four memberships in more than three types of organizations. Religion is the leading type of organizational involvement for all age groups. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed belong to some type of religious organization. Health and sports clubs, professional trade groups, school groups, and neighborhood groups are other types of formal organizations that Americans are joining.

In identifying what "community" means, 6 out of 10 people said "community" has geographical connotations. Yet the meaning of community varies with age. Respondents between the ages of 31 and 71 frequently thought in terms places while those under 30 were more likely to speak in terms of informal groups.

Contrary to widespread fears, most Americans feel a sense of attachment to the communities in which they live. Seventy-two percent said they want to be living in the same geographical area five years from now. Ninety-six percent (69%) said they know at least one of their neighbors on a first-name basis, and eighty-five percent reported they have had a conversation with a neighbor in the past three months.

"Our survey clearly demonstrates that people are engaged in their local communities, and feel that they have a vested interest in being involved with their neighbors. One-third of the survey respondents reported that they have worked with others to solve local problems, and almost three-quarters of respondents spend time discussing a myriad of local issues. Eight out of ten people surveyed believe that they can solve local problems by acting in concert with others," said Constance Swank, AARP research director.

The role of religion in social and community involvement appears throughout the results of the survey. There is a strong correlation between individuals involvement in organized religion and their attachment to where they live, involvement with others, membership in associations, and willingness to help others through volunteer work. Those who attend a house of worship more than once a week are far more likely to be involved with their community than those who never attend religious services. Of those who do volunteer work, 56 percent (56%) report that at least some of their time is spent on work "sponsored or organized by religious organizations," and 34 percent say they volunteer "because of my religious commitment."

One big unknown is how these data may play out as the younger generation gets older. The survey found that those adults between 18 and 26 exhibited the most distrust and the least involvement in their communities. A full sixty percent (60%) of respondents in this youngest adult group are distrustful of others. Less than half of all other respondents, ages 37 through 76 plus, said they were distrustful of others.

While Americans are less involved in group activities than they are in the private and economic aspects of their lives, large percentages of Americans are involved in socializing with friends, religious commitments, youth activities, hobbies shared with others, and volunteer work. The survey found that 78 percent (78%) visit with friends, 64 percent (64%) are engaged in religious activities 61 percent pursue hobbies outside their household, 57 percent (57%) perform activities with teens and children, and 53 percent (53%) volunteer their time.

The AARP "Survey of Civic Involvement" was a national telephone survey of American adults conducted at the end of 1996. Of the 1,500 people from all regions of the United States who participated in the survey, half were between 18 and 50, and half were 50 and older. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percent (2.5%).

AARP is the nation’s leading organization for people 50 and older. It serves their needs and interests through advocacy, research, informative programs and community services provided by a network of local chapters and experienced volunteers throughout the country. The organization offers members a wide range of special benefits, including Modern Maturity and the monthly Bulletin.
Copyright 1995, 1997. American Association of Retired Persons. All rights reserved.

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