Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam made his reputation with his 2000 book Bowling Alone, which famously noted that fewer people were joining clubs and civic associations than they once did. He argued that this decline presaged a decline in civil society, since people whose preferred leisure time activity was sitting at home gobbling up TV were less likely to do their part to go to meetings, engage in debates, or do what is necessary for a healthy democracy.
Putnam wrote before the Web or Netflix became part of our daily lives, but it’s clear that the trends he accurately described have only gotten worse. Earlier this month I reviewed Players and Pawns for the Weekly Standard. In this book, sociologist Gary Alan Fine looked at the world of chess, and found that far too many people prefer to play chess in front of their computer screens, where you can eat all the pizza you want and no one will complain about your hygiene. Outside of the New York City metropolitan area, chess clubs in the US are largely in high schools.
Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins notes a similar phenomenon taking place with garden clubs. He went to the National Chrysanthemum Society’s annual convention and found that membership in the society has fallen from 2,400 in the early 1980s to 500 members today; the two major winners of the club’s national contest were aged 82 and 84.
Higgins notes that the art of being a great flower grower is a personal one; veterans tell newcomers what they need to do to improve their art. But this has changed with Gen Xers and Millennials seeking to satisfy their ecological obligations by pressing a button on their smartphones rather than growing plants.
“Exhibition chrysanthemums are not endangered,” Higgins says, “but the demanding hobby of raising them is under threat as the elderly ranks of fanciers fade away.”
One encouraging sign in this depressing litany of clubs aging or failing is provided by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, who recently discussed the centennial of What Good Are We?, an African-American social club which was founded in 1915 by a group of Howard University students. The year after its founding, says Milloy, “the club organized its first chaperoned house party,” which featured Edward “Duke” Ellington, then a teenager living near the Howard campus, but later to become a jazz master.
There isn’t much information online about the What Good Are We? Club (which likes to call itself the “Whats).” Most of the references discuss the club’s parties. But Milloy went deeper, and saw a group of successful blacks who inspired their children to achieve.
John R. Hawkins III grew up in Southeast Washington. His father served in the D.C. National Guard, was a Boy Scout troop leader, and taught Sunday school. One day he took Hawkins to Arlington Cemetery to witness the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “I remember…how impressed I was by the honor guards,” Hawkins recalled. Hawkins eventually had a military career, retiring as a major general.
General Hawkins spends a great deal of time mentoring troubled young men. He explained to Milloy how he spent some time convincing a judge to not let one of his mentees go to prison, but instead be put on probation so he could be sent to a “school that specializes in job-readiness skills to students with learning difficulties.”
“That’s what we’ve got to do for these young people, get personally involved,” Gen. Hawkins said. “For those who don’t have the benefit of strong family support, it’s incumbent on those of us who did have the advantages to reach back and pull them along.”
Milloy found that other members of the Whats—“doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, and even a few 30-something millionaire businessmen”—do their part to help the next generation. D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert K. Rigsby said that as a teenager, mentors helped steer him away from the street and towards college and law school. “One of them said to me, ‘It’s cool to be an athlete, but it’s also cool to get an education,’” Judge Rigsby said.
Judge Rigsby says he does mentoring, but also has created a “law camp” to tell teens what legal careers are like. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and now it’s my turn to let others stand on mine,” the judge said.
I’d like to know more about the What Good Are We? club. It would be a fine subject for a magazine article or even a book. But I commend them for their civic service. In the reporting I’ve done on poverty-fighting, I found that the best way to make sure African-American teenagers avoid the life of the street is to see other African-Americans going to work and providing for their families.
Groups like What Good Are We? remind us of the importance clubs play in invigorating civil society. I salute the Whats on their centennial and hope they have another productive—and enjoyable! —100 years.