People are connected, but what are they talking about?

Last night, while playing cards with friends, my husband started musing on how things used to be when he was growing up. He is in his mid-thirties, so I was a little surprised by how much he sounded like someone of my grandparent’s generation wistfully remembering the past. But he was wondering aloud why science and innovation in the past several decades has focused on improving communication technology to such an extreme, compared to say, energy efficiency.

We all agreed there were many factors at play, but certainly the innate and natural human desire to connect with one another has driven these technologies, to some extent. We also all agreed, however, that the type of connection possible with newer technologies is less satisfying, less substantial, and less nurturing than sitting around the table together with some beers and a deck of cards.

Dena Wortzel, the director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, wrote an essay in the winter issue of ON, the WHC’s quarterly publication, about community life and conversation. She references the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone has received considerable attention. Putman’s study, which drew on 500,000 interviews conducted over 25 years, shows that we have friends over to visit about a third less often than twenty-five years ago, participate in clubs at about half the rate, and in a multitude of other troubling ways, have far fewer meaningful interactions with our neighbors.

Dena goes on to connect the mission, and work, of the WHC to defying this trend in substantive ways. She writes: “Our communities and our nation are forever works-in-progress. For the WHC, the desire to be of service to Wisconsin is rooted in the belief that the humanities play a critical role in making that work happen. We figure if folks here want to maintain or create places to live, and ways of living in them that please us, we’re likely to do a better job if we think pretty deeply about what a good life in a good place looks like.”

Another study, written about by Dr. Jacqueline Olds, shows that 25 percent of people responded “no one” when asked “How many people have you discussed important matters with in the last six months?”

While we all have a different definition of what is an “important matter,” the WHC is creating and supporting programs¬† around the state that get to the heart of important matters of all kinds. The common inspiration amongst these diverse, community-based projects is the use of history, culture, and conversation to bring people together.¬† So, while stimulating conversation does often happen naturally around the dinner table, or while playing cards, it sometimes feels refreshing, and even beneficial, to seek out opportunities to talk with neighbors, or strangers, in a new setting.

Dena concludes her essay by saying: “Conversation can transform our individual anxieties, enliven our hopes and imaginings, and bring us back together, again and again, when times are good and when it feels like things might be falling apart.” The photos below are a small sampling of some WHC programs.

To download a PDF of the current issue of ON, click here.

Quann Community Gardens of Madison received a WHC mini-grant to create an oral history project featuring the neighborhood's community gardeners, providing a way for gardeners to share their varied stories. Excerpts fromt eh stories appeared with accompanying photos on an outdoor exhibit adjacent to the gardens. Here, gardener Yang Vang looks at the exhibit with Yee Ythao (middle) and Blia Thao. Photo by Jane Dosmagen.

Horse drawn plowing demonstration

When Blanchardville worked with the WHC to host the traveling Smithsonian exhibition, "Barn Again: Celebrating an American Icon," the program featured a horse-drawn plowing demonstration. Around the field, farmers who remember farming with horses chatted about the changes they've seen in Wisconsin agriculture during their lifetimes. Photo courtesy of the Blanchardville Historical Society.

The "Strong Medicine" Ensemble

In March 2009, Ted Skenandore and the "Strong Medicine" ensemble shared song, dance, stories, and conversation with students at Herman Middle School in rural Dodge County. Students raised thoughtful and enthusiastic questions, as ensemble members discussed the traditional and contemporary aspects of Oneida Indian community Life. Here, Mark Denning leads a dance at the all-school gathering supported in part by a WHC mini-grant. Photo by Debbie Kmetz.

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