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Jaffrey man awarded National Humanities Medal

Robert D. Putnam of Jaffrey, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., remembers meeting then civil rights lawyer Barack Obama about 15 years ago at a university-sponsored seminar focused on civic engagement in America. Putnam said Monday he never could have imagined all those years ago that in 2013 he would be receiving a National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House.

“I walked up to the dais where [Obama] was standing, and he said to me in a whisper and winked, ‘What are you doing here?’” Putnam recalled of Wednesday’s medal ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “I told him, ‘When we met 15 years ago in Cambridge, you knew you’d be here, but I didn’t.’”

Putnam, a social scientist who has authored 14 books, said he was shocked to learn a few months ago that he would be receiving the National Humanities Medal for his writing about social capital and the decline of community in America.

The National Endowment for the Humanities was created in 1965 as an independent Federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.

Wednesday, Putnam was joined by the likes of “Star Wars” Director George Lucas and musician and fine artist Herb Alpert, who were awarded the National Medal of Arts, and writer Joan Didion and historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who both received the Humanities Medal.

According to a statement by the White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Dr. Putnam’s writing and research inspire us to improve institutions that make society worth living in, and his insights challenge us to be better citizens.”

Putnam’s 2000 best-seller “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” analyzes the decline in community involvement with the help of a bowling analogy. More Americans today bowl than ever before, Putnam said Monday, but bowling in teams has declined by 80 percent. “People are bowling alone,” he said, explaining that this one example illustrates a larger social change.

The opportunity gap that increasingly separates America’s poor and rich kids is the topic of Putnam’s latest book, which he is writing at his home on Frost Pond in Jaffrey — a place he has called home for nearly 20 years. “It’s beautiful up here. I love the quality of life,” he said. “Cheshire County and the Monadnock region has one of the highest levels of community connectedness in American. ...I like knowing my neighbors.”

The issue of disparity in economic opportunity among today’s youth is something Putnam spoke about with members of the Jaffrey-Rindge Rotary Club in August 2012. At that morning breakfast meeting, Putnam spoke about the difficult economy and how it has been a significant burden on working class families. The costs associated with extracurricular activities and many after-school programs have placed families, who can’t afford them for their children, at a disadvantage, according to Putnam.

He is scheduled to talk further about the threats to the American Dream of equal opportunity on Aug. 9 at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse as a part of the annual Amos Fortune Forum. The speaker series was organized 1946 and has since included widely known speakers on subjects of public interest and importance who live in and visit the Monadnock region.

Putnam teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses at Harvard and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy and past president of the American Political Science Association.

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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