The prevailing opinion in America today seems to be that we have become isolated from one another, spending much less time in our children's schools, their activities, churches and other civic groups and organizations. But a startling body of new information developed by Dr. Everett C. Ladd, the respected social scientist and director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, finds this is just not the case.
Like a lot of things we believe to be truth, it is based on misinformation and myth as a result of incomplete data, pundits who don't know what they're talking about, and just plain bad reporting by the news media that too often seem to be more interested in sensationalism than in thoughtful and thorough analysis and study.
More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about an America that he called "a nation of joiners." But nowadays there is widespread concern - especially after the tragedy in Littleton, Colo. - that the social fabric of our national community is coming apart. Some suggest we are losing our "social capital" or our sense of "civic engagement" to deal with community needs. Others say we have a "virtue deficit."
Mr. Ladd not only questioned whether this was true, he decided to do his own detailed surveys to measure how actively involved Americans really are in their children's schools and other community organizations and volunteer groups. What he found is surprising and goes against the grain of what we have been told or only suspect.
Among his findings:
* An impressive 59 percent of parents of school-age children volunteer to "participate in their youngsters' classrooms."
It is true that membership in the Parent-Teacher Association has shrunk dramatically since the 1960s. Less than a fourth of all public and private K-12 schools have PTAs. But independent parent teacher organizations have sprouted all over the place, he found.
In the states that he sampled, Mr. Ladd said, "We found that virtually all the schools had Parent-Teacher Associations that school officials said were active."
Other surveys support his findings that parent/school participation is growing. A 1990 poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates found "30 percent of parents of children aged 5 through 17" did not attend any PTA or special school meeting in the past year. "Three years later, the proportion not attending was just 19 percent."
National Opinion Research Center social surveys conducted in the 1990s finds "the proportion of parents belonging to such groups at their highest levels. The experience of parents and schools simply does not support the argument that America's social capital is eroding," Mr. Ladd writes in the spring issue of the Responsive Community, an academic quarterly.
* While polls find many people who believe America has become a less religious country than it once was, Mr. Ladd says this is not true.
At the beginning of the 1900s, a little more than half of America's population went to church regularly and that proportion has remained relatively constant "although inching upward."
"On the eve of the new century, something between 4 and 5 in every 10 adult Americans say they attend church `regularly,' meaning almost every week or more often. …