The special report into the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots concluded that, “No plausible number of police could have prevented trouble igniting in the kind of congestion we saw on Vancouver streets that night.” In fact, policing can never create such harmony. It is an essential tool, but it is not the root source of the peace and order that we all desire. Civil society rests on what sociologists call the “social capital” in our culture; that is, “the information, trust and norms of reciprocity inhering in one’s social networks.” (Putnam, 2000) Without this foundation, no amount of authority or force can either create or preserve peaceful coexistence.
Social capital is created when all elements of society meet, share common experiences and learn to live with and respect each other, thus establishing norms of inclusiveness and reciprocity. Where it exists, social capital acts like a civic immune system, responding to protect the “body politic” from the anti-social behaviour of individuals and groups within it. With high social capital the need for policing decreases and when it is used it is more effective because the public actively support it. Without social capital no amount of force can impose order on a society.
In “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam explains that, “Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity … [Sometimes] reciprocity is specific: I’ll do this for you if you do that for me. Even more valuable, however, is a norm of generalized reciprocity: I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road … Trustworthiness lubricates social life. Frequent interaction among a diverse set of people tends to produce a norm of generalized reciprocity.”
We hear a lot about the duty of schools to increase the life chances of students by building their personal skills. Clearly this is important, but it is equally important that schools foster the sort of civil society in which students experience the “peace, order and good government” that our constitution envisages. Schools provide not only private good for individuals but also public good for society as a whole.
This was one of the fundamental reasons for the creation of public schools. “In1829 at the founding of a community school in the bustling whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Thomas Greene eloquently expressed this crucial insight: We come from all the divisions, ranks and classes of society … to teach and to be taught in our turn. While we mingle together in these pursuits, we shall learn to know each other more intimately; we shall remove many of the prejudices which ignorance or partial acquaintance with each other had fostered … In the parties and sects into which we are divided, we sometimes learn to love our brother at the expense of him whom we do not in so many respects regard as brother … We may return to our homes and firesides [from the school] with kindlier feelings toward one another, because we have learned to know one another better.” (quoted in Putnam, 2000)
Assessment of school performance focuses on “human capital” (i.e., accomplished students) but seldom considers “social capital” (i.e., socially responsible citizens). The latter purpose deserves more attention. Schools cannot prevent hockey riots, but unless they do their job in building social capital, it is certain that in a diverse and dynamic world such tragedies will be more common and more severe.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.