Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” “Our Kids,” and stories and numbers

Give the title of this post, how does this all fit together?

I am working hard to get caught up on reading the New Yorker–but it shows up every week, and my reading time is limited. Right now I am up to the March 16, 2015 edition, and reading a review/essay (not sure how long this link will be good) on Robert Putnam’s latest work, “Our Kids.” Putnam is probably most well know for his earlier work, “Bowling Alone,” in which he argues the loss of civic engagement and community in the United States through the decline in participation in, among other things, bowling leagues.

The review in the New Yorker is about the topic of inequality in the United States, and Putnam writes about this topic in “Our Kids.”

I am not going to review Putnam’s argument, nor summarize the essay–you can read both yourself.

What interests me particularly here is one point the essayist, Jill Lepore, makes in talking about Putnam’s style of argument. Putnam tells stories, and his primary means of advancing his argument is via stories. Yes, he brings in numbers and statistics on occasion, but he makes his case primarily via narrative.

Lepore, while also commenting (accurately I think), on the substance of Putnam’s arguments (suffice to say that she notes Putnam’s golden age appeal to his youth when everything was better–at least if you were a white, middle class young man in middle America), questions Putnam’s methods–can you make an argument with narrative, especially when your narrative tries not to have an antagonist?

So now we are getting to wrap this all together–numbers and stories.

Here at William Paterson we are working hard to improve student success–student learning and student retention and graduation. As we work toward this, we argue its importance, and we do so with numbers and stories.

Which are more accurate. Which are more powerful?

As an academic, my training is in rhetoric, persuasion and argumentation–in other words, how to use language to get people to think, and, hopefully, to get people to think (and maybe even act) in support of ideas.

Stories matter-stories make an issue concrete and personal. Stories engage us in a way numbers cannot. In classical rhetorical terms, stories allow us to use pathos, to touch an audience emotionally. Numbers can’t do that.

But the strength of stories is also their limitation. Stories are specific–one example. And even if that one example can be generalized, it can’t be generalized to all–it is too specific. Stories tell us about a tree; numbers tell us about a forest. Stories tell us about how one person is affected; numbers show trends and magnitudes of effect.

When we talk about student success here at William Paterson, we have fantastic stories of individual students succeeding and overcoming what appear to be numerous odds stacked against them. We have stories of our faculty working with individual students in research, scholarship and creative activities. We also have stories of students who face economic and academic barriers that are difficult to overcome.

We have stories.

But we also have numbers. We know what our retention rates are, and we know what our 4 and 6 year graduation rates are. We know average GPAs and average numbers of credits students complete before they graduate. We know where we stand (by number) in comparison to our peers and our competitors.

I like stories, and as a rhetorician, I know their power. But I acknowledge that stories only tell one reality; numbers give us a different (and perhaps) more accurate reality. Both are needed, and both have a function–but we may need to pay a little more heed to our numbers so that we advance all of our students, not just the individual ones we feature in our stories.