This year, our College brought forth a reaffirmation of its commitment to "the common good." The year began with a convocation address by President Mills where he said, "each of us here is a participant in a noble enterprise. We are the current guardians of the liberal arts tradition and the latest generation to take up a treasured Bowdoin obligation, and that is our unique obligation to exert our minds and our talents in service to the common good."
Then, later in the year, influential Harvard professor Michael Sandel delivered a lecture on "Democracy, Education and the Common Good." As we've had in other years, 2007-2008 featured a Common Good Award, a Common Good Day, where we engage in local community service, and a Common Good Grant Committee. To direct and invigorate Bowdoin's commitment to this theme, we will unveil the Center for the Common Good. With all this attention to the common good it seems vitally important that we sustain discussion and continue to think deeply about what this concept might mean.
Last week, the Community Service Resource Center and departments of government, education, and philosophy all contributed to bringing in Ms. Eva Brann, a former dean at St. John's College and recent recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Award, to discuss the question "What is the Common Good of Liberal Education?" From what I gathered, she wanted to provoke us to think and speak about what it is that we have in common as a student body. Then she made us consider which of these commonalities are "good" in the sense that they make the conversation and liberal learning that is integral to liberal education possible.
Brann focused her lecture on making a distinction between the public good and the common good, and urged us to avoid the former and embrace the latter. She believes "the education that takes place [at the liberal arts institution] ought to be non-utilitarian, because it should be free, unconstrained by practical requirements, so that at least once in their life people can raise and pursue at leisure any question whatsoever." The public good offers an understanding of education as instrumental to some other end. Brann suggests that this type of education is particularly dangerous when this end has not been reflected upon.
Liberal education, however, "comes from books" and the "liberal learning" accompanying it "comes from the conversations of the living and the present." Questions are "its animating force" and "it ought to be useless" in the sense of having no immediate utility. In essence, it is the "search for the foundations of our opinions." This search will allow not only for a more subtle, complete understanding of the ideas we value most, but it may also reveal some of the potential flaws in our cherished ideals.
It is this quest that unites a community. For Brann, having goods in common is a "positive sum game, because the more of a common good each of us gets hold of, the more of it there is for each of us singly and for all of us together." She singled out ideas as having commonality in the most important sense. She identified ideas as communicable?"you can convey an idea to a fellow human being merely by speaking, and not only don't you lose by such expression, but you gain something valuable, namely the possibility of conversation," and she says that "speech, responsive sociability, is the best thing human beings have." If we can accept the premium she places on verbal communication, then ideas are an extremely important good we have in common. Ideas are "good" because they make conversation, a peak of liberal education, possible. But which of our other commonalities make conversation possible?
Ms. Brann offered no finite answers, but she encouraged us to begin thinking about what it is that we have in common with everyone else at Bowdoin. She suggested "an audience of Bowdoin students might be by definition the collective embodiment of responsibility, civility, and articulateness." All of these are "mental attributes good for having ideas." She exemplified this quest by kindling our interest with new questions. But the question remained: What might be our virtue, the excellence embodied by all the students at Bowdoin College, that makes dynamic and engaging conversation possible?
While Bowdoin College and St. John's College are quite different, Brann may have a point. I think that the search for that virtue that enables communal conversation, or another good that is truly "common," would nicely complement our commitment to community involvement and civic activism. The first-year seminars, the brand new "Undiscussed" program, the dozen or so lectures offered each week, all provide valuable forums for dialogue Brann describes. Reflecting on the conditions that make such conversation possible would be a compelling way to strengthen the connection between our intellectual life and our common good tradition.
Ross Jacobs is a member of the Class of 2010.