The Instructional Value of Fostering Social Capital in the Classroom

Article excerpt

Social capital is a term that encompasses social networks, emotional bonds and habits of reciprocity that promote trust and cooperation. Course designs in political science, economics and psychology that promoted social interaction were more effective in achieving their desired results than those that utilized traditional atomized classes in which students pursue parallel rather than interactive learning. Political caucus participation, learning intuitively about the money creation process and spontaneous psychological group leadership and participation were the outcomes sought and achieved.

**********

Social capital consists of social networks, habits of cooperation and bonds of reciprocity that serve to generate benefits for members of a community. These exchanges have lower opportunity costs than comparable market-mediated services partly because they are voluntary (non-contractual) and are likely to involve more intrinsic satisfaction. They embody the emotional bonds of group support and trust (Fukiyama, 1995; Putnam, 2000).

Social groups that encourage honest self-presentation, have few incentives for competition, and have a reason to exist, often result in the development of bonds of friendship and trust among its members. We believe it is because such bonds are intrinsically rewarding to members. Examples are small participative religious congregations, regular attendees of Narcotics Anonymous meetings, local participative political caucuses and psychotherapy groups. These groups tend to possess social capital.

When strangers gather for purposes of convenience with little incentive to communicate, they are likely to engage in parallel rather than interactive behavior. Examples would be spectators at a sporting event, library patrons and members of a lecture-style college class. These collections of individuals can be described as atomized. They provide no gratuitous emotional support to each other although some may converse with strangers or acquaintances (perhaps partisans of the same team attending an athletic event).

College Instruction and Social Capital

All universities in Texas require six semester hours in American Government and Politics to qualify for a bachelor's degree. One three-hour course focuses on the American Constitution and national, state and local political processes. The other, on institutions of national, state and local government. This is imposed by state law and has been for decades.

Clearly the Texas Legislature views the understanding of government as important. This can only be an attempt to promote intelligent citizen political participation. A standard "lecture-textbook-term paper" course, however, provides content that is detailed, dull, atheoretical, inherently trivial, and is instantly forgotten by students after exams. This is particularly true when objective tests are employed.

We believe that a textbook course can't provide information relevant to participation in politics, will be viewed only as a source of college credit, and can't enhance the enjoyment of political involvement. An interactive, real world oriented course represents an alternative more likely to promote informed political participation if the instruction embodies rehearsals, feedback from social interaction, and information generated in the form of cognitions and emotions combined. The desired outcome, after all, is voluntary behavior.

To this end, an experiment was performed in the spring of 1976 to determine whether an experimental course that incorporated the incidental development of social capital would produce higher political participation rates than a conventional course and higher rates than adult demographic groups known for traditionally high participation.

The Experiment

Hosen (1978) designed and taught three experimental sections of the course that covered the U.S. Constitution and American politics. …