Going It Alone

October 2, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: A fascinating article appeared last spring by Robert D. Putnam called “Bowling Alone, Revisited.” It narrowly concerned itself with the news that more people than ever are going bowling, but that they are bowling alone and not in bowling leagues or groups.

Putnam’s wider point is that Americans have stopped joining leagues and groups in general, and clubs and associations and civic organizations. In the 1830’s, Tocqueville noted that Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. He related that tendency directly to the health of the republic.

Americans, as natural joiners, knew how to make free associations work. When they applied that skill to the country as a whole, America, itself, became one great civic organization.

But now, in the past few decades, Americans have stopped joining up and have decided to go it alone. A Roper Poll shows that since 1973, the number of people who said that they attended town meetings had dropped by 1/3. Church going is down. Labor union membership has fallen steadily for 40 years. Membership in the PTA is way down, so is membership in the League of Women Voters, the Elks Club, the Shriners, and the Masons. Membership in the Boy Scouts is off 26 percent since 1970. Membership in the Red Cross 61 percent. “We are bowling by ourselves,” says Putnam.

And, indeed, we are. We may read the trend in the use of compact discs that simulate the sounds of concert halls, and the use of videos that allow people to make movie theaters of their homes. The explicit declaration of the enormously successful Home Box Office, and of other pay-TV movie channels is: Do not go out and sit in a movie theater with others.

People clamp a Walkman on their heads to drown out the world, or they pop on a helmet that gives them “virtual reality,” which takes the place of “real” reality. Parked at a computer terminal, they enter cyberspace, where they gladly link up with those whom they will never touch or see.

To be a joiner has always been thought of as a mixed virtue. It has implied a certain lack of intellectual or moral independence, a conformist streak. One can join terrible groups in America, like the Ku Klux Klan, and claim no civic improvement. And yet the best of life is usually involved in association of some sort: A marriage, a family, a bunch of friends at the office, a religion, a group of people with similar interests or conditions who simply like one another’s company.

If Americans are no longer joining associations, it says something both about associations and ourselves. Maybe the baby boomers who now dominate the population have changed their slogan from: “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” to “Don’t trust anyone,” since they are now well over 30 themselves.

Maybe they have changed “Do your own thing” to “Only do your own thing.” But it isn’t the boomers alone who are going it alone. It’s their elders too, and generation X, it’s everybody. If Tocqueville was right, the effect of this mass of solitariness would be disastrous.

Without membership in organizations, there can be no sense of the cooperation organizations require, the complexities of management and of leadership and of followership, the subtle balances, the common purposes, the good a group can do.

“Citizenship” means “others.” Yet, we are jogging alone, and doing research alone, and living alone–and we are bowling alone.

So strange an activity: You choose your ball; you stare down the alley at the pins; you watch the ball roll, you wait. If a bowling pin falls in an alley, and you are there to hear it, does it make a sound?