What does Bowdoin College stand for?

President Barry Mills addressed this question very directly and thoughtfully at this year's convocation. He discussed a number of assumptions made about Bowdoin's political orientation, and that of liberal arts colleges in general.

To briefly summarize, Mills concluded that although college campuses are often accurately subjected to the stereotype of being disproportionately left leaning, Bowdoin's commitment to political diversity must remain unwavering. He spoke of the precariousness of a college experience and education with an insulated and one-sided political discourse.

His message is certainly an important one. I do think, however, that another significant question remains: Does the College's devotion to pluralism accurately form the identity of this institution?

When pressed for a defining characteristic of Bowdoin College, many students and faculty will quickly allude to the College's commitment to "the common good."

Indeed, the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good is literally located at our institution's moral center, in our chapel. This fact, coupled with Mills' convocation statements, paints an open-minded and quaintly altruistic picture of our school.

The merit of the College's use of "the common good" as the bedrock of its identity is most definitely contingent on what we at Bowdoin decipher as the common good. Perhaps no better guide to its significance can be found than in the vision of the first president of Bowdoin, Joseph McKeen. McKeen is both the center's namesake and its intellectual founder.

The Bowdoin website states, "At the opening of the college in 1802, President Joseph McKeen declared that:

'[L]iterary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education, and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.'"

A careful examination of and extrapolation on McKeen's statement reveals two very important things about the current incarnation of Bowdoin College.

First, we are all members of a decidedly liberal institution. McKeen asserts that "usefulness" to society trumps "the private advantage of those who resort to [Bowdoin] for education."

Considering that these words were spoken in 1802, McKeen's disposition must be seen as an ancestor of modern political liberalism. He deemed the private merit or achievement of a Bowdoin student worthless if it was not devoted to the improvement of society.

Such an idea is anathema to the modern Republican Party, which spurns any idea that even remotely smacks of a social welfare system. McKeen's communalistic, or even communistic, view of citizenship pervades the contemporary philosophy of at least the leftist base of the contemporary Democratic Party. This philosophy is evident in the hefty graduated income tax that Republicans love to hate, just as it is evident in Bowdoin's student-run Volunteer Lawyers Project.

We go to a liberal school. We see our education as a tool for the advancement of others. Bowdoin's first president endowed us with this concept.

Some would make the counterargument that American conservatives are not averse to altruism, but that they instead view government as a different beast, one that cannot be trusted to ensure the welfare of a nation's citizens. This argument can only be presented as a desire for a more efficient government, and not an argument that advocates for an indifferent or unsympathetic government.

How can we say that a republican government should not emulate that private tendency of citizens to find "the good" that they have in common with their society? The fact that Bowdoin has unabashedly made "the common good" a central tenet of its educational offerings speaks to this school's political orientation.

So why should Mills, or anyone else for that matter, stalwartly support a continuing commitment to political pluralism at Bowdoin College?

This question reveals the second thing to be discovered from McKeen's inaugural address. Scholarship is the ultimate contribution that graduates of the College can offer to the common good. McKeen refers to our "mental powers," or our "talents," as the agents of societal good. To be blunt, I think he was more concerned with our ideas than our capacity to wield a paintbrush.

An environment that promotes groundbreaking research and inspires creativity is the one that is most aligned with a commitment to the "common good." Therefore, political diversity is of the utmost importance insofar as it ignites productive debate.

With differently oriented students, scholarship at Bowdoin College will neither stagnate nor resist compelling shifts in political or intellectual paradigms.

Bowdoin is a liberal school, but that fact can remake any one of us into a conservative.