Another start to a fall semester is marked by another free T-shirt: grinning polar bears wearing overalls and wielding instruments of manual labor. 

Common Good Day gets groups of students (teams, first-year floors and the rogue individual volunteer) together with faculty and staff for an afternoon of volunteer service in the greater Brunswick community. After a morning of pump-up talks and student musical performances in Farley Field House, participants lend about three hours of labor to local nonprofits and municipal organizations. The hope of the event is presumably to promote student engagement with the McKeen Center for the Common Good and long-term service.

It is a noble pursuit to strive for community engagement and service in the student body of a college. At Bowdoin, time is a scarce resource and service is not work that can be done in a day; it requires time and planning and critical thinking and reflection.

A major part of Bowdoin’s brand is its public commitment to the common good. As Joseph McKeen, Bowdoin’s first president, stated in his 1802 inaugural address: “Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them.” Today, this commitment is restated in the Offer of the College, and understood as Bowdoin’s guiding philosophy. It can be easy to overlook, then, Bowdoin’s status in the world and the ways that, as an elite institution, it furthers private interests and privileges those already likely to succeed in a capitalist society.

As the 2013 National Association of Scholars report reminds us, Bowdoin is overwhelmingly liberal. That’s true. The problem with this liberalism, though, is that it is often surface-level, and focuses on doing small good deeds as opposed to transforming a system that roots itself in injustices and reproduces inequalities. Edward Abbey, the American essayist, wrote: “The conservatives love their cheap labor; the liberals love their cheap cause.” 

Common Good Day is a great example of this “cheap cause.” It is the supposedly selfless donation of time to support organizations in need of help: a small, musty historical society, a farm with immigrant workers an hour away, a food bank. We dip our toes into service, shake a hand or two, snap some photos and accept gratitude. But, are the organizations benefitting as much as Bowdoin is? 

Without the surrounding rhetoric, Common Good Day is simply a safe group-bonding activity. It’s good for the College and it’s good for the students who walk away feeling as if they’ve done something meaningful. At best, it provides organizations with one afternoon of extra help that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. At worst, it burdens the organization and leaves students with a savior complex. Either way, it doesn’t create a meaningful impact unless it’s surrounded by comprehensive education and critical reflection, and followed up with continued service. In fact, the McKeen Center’s Alternative Break programs do this by holding weekly seminar discussions leading up to a seven-day service immersion program, and following the trip there is a debriefing conversation.

Although it’s easy to slip on an ethically-produced polar bear T-shirt once in a while, promoting the common good as a brand is hollow. 

While we’ve written “common good” seven times in this article (now eight), the words themselves mean little. They can be used to justify almost any action. (Consider Bowdoin’s promotion of military service during WWII.) Go beyond the rhetoric and consider what the common good means at Bowdoin, as it’s imagined from the Ivory Tower. Consider, too, what it might mean after you’ve left Bowdoin. Interrogate whether it means anything to you at all.

Emily Weyrauch and Eliza Graumlich are both members of the Class of 2017.