Bowling Alone? Learning Alone? We Can Do Better

In his classic study Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam argues that we have lost our connection to friends, family, neighbors, and our democratic structures.  He warns that our “social capital” has plummted, leaving us emotionally and socially impoverished.  We’re working harder, going to more meetings, but spending less time iwth friends, neighbors, and others.  His powerful image of this is that more Americans now bowl than ever–but not in leagues.  We’re bowling alone.

John Dewey didn’t use the term “social capital” in his 1900 classic School and Society, but he very much believed in the power of social connection to enhance learning, to ensure that formal education was relevant to society, and to underscore the deeply personal, engaged, invested aspects of learning in a democracy.

The “connected learning” movement links these ideas, underscoring the importance of connecting learning to experience and learners to one another.  Of all the different ways that have been tried to enhance and invigorate and improve learning, learning together continues to be best.  Whether looking at study groups at Harvard or impoverished rural girs in India, in learning languages, computer code, or writing and reading skills, learning together proves to be effective, motivating, excellent for retention of knowledge and excellent for keeping people learning (formally or informally).

In online learning, too, connection is key.  Conversely, online learning can offer collective, connected support across distance and among learners.  it is for all of these reasons that one of our first projects in the Futures Initiative has been to find new ways of connecting learners across the vast CUNY system.  This year, we are doing this by teaching a graduate class (“Mapping the Futures of Higher Education”) to twelve students who themselves are currently either teaching an undergraduate course or running a program at one of CUNY’s colleges or community-colleges.


Mapping Futures - Map of Undergraduate Courses
Map by Futures Initiative Fellow Kalle Westerling. Map based on OpenStreetMap but has been edited; city vector designed by Freepik; icons from Vector Open Stock.


The graduate students are working in four teams, they are designing the course of study for all of us, and, each week, all the students are going into their classrooms and their programs and translating these ideas about the best possible ways of teaching and learning into an actual classroom experience.  We then all reconvene the next week to “debrief,” talk about what works best, what needs work, and how we might try something even better the next time.

Because we have adapted the C-Box/ CUNY Academic Commons platform to allow CUNY students to collaborate across classrooms for the first time, we also want to engage students in this process of taking responsibility for their own learning.  “Meta-cognition” is the professional term for thinking about how we think–and we know that meta-cognition, like group and peer learning, helps students to learn better.  It gives them tools and a sense of control over their own learning.   In the classroom and beyond.  That is the goal.

To foster connection and learning together, one project we are all doing together is the “CUNY Map of NYC.”  Futures Initiative Fellow Michael Dorsch, a doctoral student in Earth and Environmental Sciences, has kicked off the mapping project in a big way with his excellent “CUNY Sociodemographic Maps of NYC.”   The graduate students in our Mapping course have all taken non-referential selfies (privacy is important to digital literacy).  Those are on the map.  We are encouraging them to have their CUNY undergraduates to put themselves on the map with non-referential selfies too.

And we are encouraging each of the classes to figure out some way, together,  collectively, to contribute to their own CUNY Map of NYC.   A Greek and Latin professor has suggested that she might have the students find the roots of their own names and then “pin” the maps on all the countries through which those names may have travelled over time, from CUNY to the world, from the present back through history.  There are many other suggestions, too, to literally map CUNY’s impacts, the connection of learning to city, and, we hope, to also help students collaborate with one another.

All of this will be on display at an Exhibition and a Recognition Ceremony for the 300+ students who are taking these CUNY classes.  No one knew they would be taking an introductory class that would connect to students in introductory classes all over the CUNY system and all over the knowledge map of higher education.   What students make of this is up to them.   We hope it will be exciting.  And we hope you will join us on May 22 to see the results.

Bowling alone?  Learning alone?   There are better ways–and we hope you will join us in exploring them together.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309