On Second thought Students' political homogeneity results in lack of action and smug attitudes
On Second thought Kristof and Riley debate proves underwhelming
On Second thought Alternative forms of activism given the inefficacy of protesting
On Second thought Divestment is right step, but BCA slogans reductive
On Second thought Digital detox: a break from social media may provide a refreshing perspective
On Second thought: MLB rule change reflects our urge for a fast-paced culture
Unless you’re a hermit or a Floridian, you know that Brunswick was unseasonably warm last week. The mid-February heatwave made for some confused seasonal activities. I, for one, have never had to circumnavigate mounds of snow in 50-degree weather. But college is a time for new and exciting experiences, after all.
As it happened, the balmy weather coincided with the second-best week of the year, the opening of Major League Baseball (MLB) spring training. (The best week, of course, is the opening week of the regular season in early April.) So while meteorologists might be grumbling about gulfstreams, barometric pressure or global warming (whatever that is), for us, the enlightened ones, the cause of the heatwave was immediately obvious: the universe loves baseball just as much as we do.
This year, however, a stormcloud appeared along the horizon of the otherwise tropical paradise, and it wasn’t simply the impending return to bone-chilling temperatures and snowfall forecasted for next week. As pitchers began to report to their actually warm spring training camps, Major League Baseball announced its plan to deform a historic, cherished and embattled ballpark institution: the intentional walk.
If you have made it to this paragraph despite being part of the 97 percent of students who would rather watch paint dry than see a baseball game, first off, kudos to you. So, trigger warning: baseball talk and boredom may ensue. But please stick around. Secondly, I assume you’re wondering, what the hell is an intentional walk? And more likely, why the hell does it matter?
The intentional walk is a strategic maneuver that a team uses when, for any number of reasons, it wants to avoid pitching to the other team’s man at the plate. Maybe the batter is on a hot streak, or maybe putting one man on first base will create the opportunity for a forceout at third or maybe you deem the next batter an easy out. So instead of actually pitching to the batter, the pitcher will lightly toss four balls to the catcher who has stepped comfortably away from the plate. If this gibberish to you, just understand: it’s sneaky, it’s strategic, and it’s symbolically loaded.
The recent rule change announced by the MLB does not do away with the intentional walk altogether, but now instead of actually throwing four balls, the pitcher may simply signal to the dugout to put the batter on first.
Before even the most tenacious of readers put the paper down, this change matters— and not just to baseballs fans. Yes, ballpark-goers will lose the cathartic opportunity to heckle the opposing pitcher and the occasional intentional-walk anomaly, like a wild pitch or deceptive switcheroo, will become the stuff of legends-past. But more importantly, this change reflects troubling cultural trends, the forces of which we feel even here at Bowdoin.
The rule change comes as part of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s effort to speed up the pace of baseball. Last year, the league began to fine batters for stepping out of the batter’s box during their at-bats. This year, Manfred also tried to implement a number of reforms aside from the automatic intentional walk, including a pitch count for pitchers and a cap on the number of visits a catcher can make to the mound. Luckily, these other changes were blocked by the players’ union.
It’s no secret that baseball is a slow game, and it is in fact getting slower. Over the past 35 years, the average length of a nine-inning game has increased by 30 minutes, from two and a half hours to three.
The renowned cultural critic Jacques Barzun famously said in 1954 that “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game.” If Barzun is right, Manfred’s changes do not bode well for the heart and mind of America.
Baseball may not be a fast-paced game, but it is hardly boring. Each pitch represents a minor battle in itself as the pitcher, catcher and batter engage in an intricate game of chess-like strategy. To understand and appreciate this duel, and numerous others like it, requires discernment, patience and stamina. The payoff is three hours of continual excitement. Instead of cultivating these virtues, Manfred’s change panders to our insatiable cultural desire for speed, gratification and accessibility. Baseball is a novel, not a tweet, and should be treated as such.
Secondly, defenders of the intentional walk status quo have rightly pointed out that the rule change will in reality do little to speed up games. A four-pitch intentional walk occurs roughly once every two and a half games and takes little over a minute to complete. The MLB’s insistence on implementing the change despite its negligible effects betrays a growing affinity for empty symbolism over substantive political or cultural change. It is the baseball equivalent of hashtag activism.
So for more reasons than one, we ought to lament the death of the four-pitch intentional walk. In our world of instantaneity, hyper-speed and haste, can’t we all agree that we have the time for a little walk? After all, the weather has been so nice.
On Second thought: Alternative forms of activism given the inefficacy of protesting
In this column two weeks ago, I discussed a tendency within 21st-century American liberalism toward self-satisfied smugness. I argued that this smugness, aside from being intellectually lazy, actually stands in the way of pursuing a serious liberal agenda by coaxing those on the left into a cozy haze of cerebral self-righteousness rather than encouraging them to take concrete action in the political sphere. It is this passive aloofness that remains the target of President Donald Trump’s frequent censures of “empty talk.”
I was encouraged by the feedback that I received in response to this piece, and not only because I now know that at least someone reads these things. A fair number of my peers enthusiastically agreed with my sentiment, commenting that they, too, are frustrated by the smugness and inaction on campus. This response in itself, along with the remarkably large attendance at the discussion of ideological diversity on Feburary 3 moderated by Professor of Government Paul Franco, raises a number of interesting questions about political diversity on our campus.
Another handful of readers approached me to ask what would qualify as meaningful forms of political action on campus. What about protests, walkouts, petitions and the like? These questions got me thinking, and I figured they warranted a proper response.
At the end of my previous column, I encouraged students who feel dismayed at the lack of socioeconomic diversity to apply for a summer internship in the Office of Admissions. I hope that the importance of this type of action was not lost behind the rhetorical flourish. On a small, geographically isolated campus like our own, involvement within the College is a tremendously important mode of political engagement. The opportunities for student engagement within the infrastructure of the College are vast and, I fear, underutilized. Run for Bowdoin Student Government. Work as an assistant in an administrative office. Conduct policy-focused research with a professor. The opportunities are myriad.
Outside of the strict purview of the College, we should take greater advantage of our extracurricular organizations. Political groups like the College Republicans and Democrats are a good place to start, especially in election years that focus on get-out-the-vote efforts and campaigning. Additionally, the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good lists 28 student-led service organizations on its website. Imagine the political effect on the College if every single Bowdoin student were involved in one of these 28 organizations.
The same goes for life as a private citizen. Instead of interning at Bain and Company over the summer, respond to constituent mail in your congressperson’s district office. Go canvas during an election. Hell, run for public office. How many recent Bowdoin graduates do you know who are public servants compared to, say, financial consultants?
The big question, especially as of late, hovers over protests. What are the role of mass protests in the emerging political milieu? What makes for an “effective” protest? Considering that college students continue to both populate and organize protests, this question intimately concerns us.
In my mind, we ought to recognize protests as, at best, a double-edged sword. As David Frum recently observed in the Atlantic, “With the rarest exceptions—and perhaps the January 21 demonstration will prove to be one—left-liberal demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion.” In this cathartic capacity, protests promote the smug inaction that I addressed in my last column.
Beyond simple catharsis, protests can draw attention to a cause. But attention on its own rarely translates into action. In an article in New York Magazine, Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at the University of Indiana is quoted saying, “There are some people that think that protests solve everything; you just have a protest, it’s going to make everything change...That’s not true—it is a tool that does a very specific thing, and you have to understand that when you start out.”
These objections represent fairly standard critiques of protests. But elsewhere, Frum has offered a more insightful and pressing concern, arguing that short of being simply ineffective, protests might be counterproductive in the Trump era. Frum writes, “Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it … Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing anti-police slogans—these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.”
Frum’s observation is important to bear in mind, especially on college campuses. I vigorously support opposition to any policy of the Trump administration that infringes upon the civil liberties and rights of Americans, but students should think twice about the role of public protests in today’s political atmosphere. We ought to be weary of the self-fulfilling prophecy: the right lampoons the liberal and academic elite for being snobbish and out of touch, and in turn we protest to urge our college president to meet a list of demands that the College has already been meeting. Trump and the press in turn point to these protests as proof of academia’s snobbery and isolation, and the cycle continues.
Although vocal opposition to public protests has long been a favorite in the playbook of the reactionary right, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the left would be wise to be more hesitant before taking to the street. So while we should encourage opposition to Trump’s unconstitutional measures in as many forms as possible, we should think twice before picking up the megaphone.
On Second thought: Students' political homogeneity results in lack of action and smug attitudes
“The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action,” declared our new commander in chief from the north end of the Capitol on January 20. This action-over-talk motif appears to be a favorite of President Trump, who, in his first week in office, has wasted no time in introducing a flurry of executive orders and then making a point of flaunting them on Twitter and in his speeches.
At first glance, Trump’s attack on “empty talk” is just another iteration of the age-old truism, found in numerous forms like “walk the walk, don’t talk the talk” or “actions speak louder than words.” Unreflectively, we all accept this prescription, holding others to their word and, with any luck, embodying truism ourselves.
Yet, this directive has taken on particular political force in the mouth of President Trump. It has struck an unusually resonant chord in the hearts and minds of American voters. Yes, politicians and pundits persistently peddle in platitudes; this much is not new. And as a disclaimer, I have absolutely no taste for our new president, as both an elected official and as a man. Nevertheless, it would do us well to take a moment to consider why some of these clichés assume greater force at particular moments in our nation’s history.
I would conjecture that the ascendency of the talk-is-cheap rhetoric is in part a reaction to a rather strong tendency in contemporary liberalism towards what Emmett Rensin bluntly labeled as “smug” in his strikingly prophetic piece “The smug style in American liberalism,” published on Vox on April 21, 2016.
Rensin’s piece is worth a read all the way through, so consider this my recommendation. But in short, Rensin argues that between 1964 and 1980, demographic shifts within the American Democratic Party—shifts away from the working class and towards the academic and coastal elite—have brought about a change in liberalism’s “intellectual center of gravity.” Unable to comprehend why the white working class so rapidly abandoned the Democratic Party—which, after all, was its ultimate champion—liberals cultivated “the theory that conservatism, and particularly the kind embraced by those out there in the country, was not a political ideology at all,” but rather sheer stupidity.
“Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt,” Rensin writes. He rather aptly compares this dynamic to that of two recently separated lovers in the aftermath of a particularly nasty break-up.
The essence of this culture of contempt is “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason,” and its primary symptom is knowing: “Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better.” The Democratic Party, in its own eyes, abides by “a politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts.”
Of course, when we know that we just know better than those misguided, unknowing hordes, we are wont to try to convince them of their wrongness—to plainly reason out, with no ideological spin whatsoever, why they are misguided. When they refuse to yield, they only cement their own stupidity.
I believe in the power of persuasion, and I believe that ideas matter. I would be a fool to write this column if I didn’t. Likewise, I shudder at the rise of “alternative facts,” and the prospect of a “post-factual world” seems like a terrible, terrible nightmare. Nevertheless, I am not enamored by the very-real smugness that pervades so much of liberal politics, even here (or, perhaps, especially here) on our campus.
The issue with smugness, aside from being intuitively repulsive, is that it makes us complacent. We content ourselves with knowing the facts, and tweeting about them, while doing little to realize our goals. There is a curious strand of gnosticism at play here, by means of which simply having superior knowledge lifts us above the fray of culpability and blame. So rather than enacting our ideal of virtue or descending into the political arena to work towards a solution, we sit back and virtue signal, waiting for the masses to finally come to their senses and “get woke.” Trump’s brand of action-without-thought populism is in part a reaction to this very attitude. Elite universities, especially rural liberal arts colleges like our own, are uniquely susceptible to the gravitational pull of smugness. Surrounded largely by like-minded students and isolated from national politics in any real sense, we spend four years immersed in ideas. This is a beautiful thing, and one of the most compelling and attractive aspects of our schooling. At the same time, it positions us to become terrifically smug.
“The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing,” Rensin writes, and the knowing creeps up every so often at Bowdoin: when we know that Bowdoin needs to actively recruit more socioeconomic diversity, when we know that the College must divest from fossil fuels or when we know that “conservatism” is just a codeword for backward intolerance. The issue isn’t with having convictions but with thinking those convictions absolve you from action. A culture of gratitude might make us complacent, but a culture of knowing makes us contemptible.
Rensin acknowledges that liberalism was the “American ideology hitherto responsible for a great share of the good accomplished over the past century of our political life,” and this is still true. But if liberalism in America is to continue to thrive in the 21st century, it must be rescued from its smuggest tendencies. To counter Trump’s doing-without-knowing, we must move beyond knowing-without-doing. So, having put down your copy of the Orient, do you feel acutely the injustice of the school’s socioeconomic homogeneity? Excellent, because I think the admissions office is seeking summer interns.
On Second thought: Kristof and Riley debate proves underwhelming
Well, you can’t fault them for trying.
And we must commend President Clayton Rose and the council of faculty, staff and students for organizing Monday night’s event, “Up For Discussion,” which brought Nicholas Kristof and Jason Riley to campus to discuss free speech and political correctness in higher education. Between this event and talks this fall by Dr. Noam Chomsky and Dinesh D’Souza, Bowdoin has clearly taken a step in the right direction towards ensuring that a wide range of political views get airtime on campus. This development, coupled with the absence of teeth-gnashing in response to any one speaker, warrants praise in itself.
Nevertheless, Monday’s discussion fell flat. And I was not alone in leaving Pickard Theater feeling, at best, underwhelmed. The discussion, moderated by Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Y. Chiang, had the potential to turn fiery, yet it was anything but. On point after point, Kristof and Riley, rather than squaring off, simply agreed with one another. Hardly Lincoln-Douglas.
From trigger warnings to ideological diversity, Kristof and Riley, though at times disagreeing on the specifics, generally arrived at a consensus: inclusion must come second to academic seriousness; college campuses desperately need greater ideological diversity; discomfort is not sufficient grounds for silencing speech.
So, what went wrong? Kristof and Riley certainly disagree on something. Kristof, just this year, published a seven-part series in The New York Times called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” chronicling white Americans’ racial naiveté and its damaging effects on the African-American population. As for Riley, in his most recent work, “Please Stop Helping Us,” he blamed liberal economic policies for holding back the black population while simultaneously chastising that population for its lack of moral integrity, and claiming things like, “Black culture today not only condones delinquency and thuggery but celebrates it.”
For all their disagreements, how did Kristof and Riley remain so harmonious? To begin, the terms of the debate were poorly articulated. Political correctness, thus termed, has very few fervent supporters because the term itself has become derisive. Those who defend the practices and attitudes called politically correct defend them not as politically correct but rather as inclusive. Asking a proponent of safe spaces to defend political correctness is like asking a defender of income redistribution to defend state-sponsored theft. When thus framed, both disputants were able to skirt the issue. If asked to defend inclusion, neither would have gotten off so easy.
Secondly, by framing the debate between an avowed liberal and an outspoken conservative as between “political correctness and free speech,” the event coordinators insinuated that the cause of political correctness would be defended by the liberal, while that of free speech by the conservative. This division in itself is misleading; those charged with so-called political correctness tend to fall on the left, but political correctness is not necessarily an inherently liberal issue. And while some of the more vocal defenders of free speech fall on the right, freedom of speech is a truly bipartisan issue.
Yet more detrimentally, the whole debate relied on a flawed premise. To frame a debate as between political correctness and free speech assumes a degree of antagonism between the two. This could not be further from the truth. Certainly there are high-profile cases where the two come into conflict on college campuses. But arguably these instances are misapplications of both ideals. When a college chooses to disinvite a speaker or to implement Orwellian speech codes on the basis of inclusion, it is in fact electing to exclude persons or viewpoints. Some may claim that these measures are part of social justice work, but they in fact undermine the very end that social justice aims to promote: the protection of fundamental civil rights for all. The derisive tone behind the term, is fueled in part by an awareness of this contradiction. Conversely, when a proponent of free speech decries protests of a speaker as hostile to free speech rather than challenging those protests on substantive grounds, he undermines the principle underlying freedom of expression, that unfettered debate is the most reliable path to important truths.
The two principles, far from being opposed, are mutually supportive: proponents of inclusivity rely intimately on the freedom of expression for minority views to be heard; good-faith proponents of free speech defend that right for the very purpose of uplifting marginalized populations. As the American Civil Liberties Union writes on its website, “the defense of freedom of speech is most necessary when the message is one most people find repulsive. Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.” The protection of every citizen’s fundamental civil rights: this is true social justice work.
An ongoing lawsuit at the University of Kentucky illustrates how true social justice work and free-speech in practice go hand in hand. In August, the university, citing privacy concerns, filed a lawsuit against the student newspaper over documents obtained by the paper regarding an alleged sexual assault by a former professor. The paper is challenging the suit. Here, as is true in the abstract, the protection of free expression and the protection of marginalized populations—in this case, victims of sexual assault—are working in concert.
Now, there were certainly other issues with the debate at Bowdoin. Kristof, while leaning to the left, remains a vocal critic of the intellectual hegemony of academia. So while Kristof and Riley disagree on a great many things, campus politics appears not to be one. Additionally, neither disputant appeared to have taken the time to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the debate at Bowdoin, which has centered around the tequila and gangster parties. Lastly, Professor Chiang’s method of questioning seemed to manifest the very tendency towards tentativeness in racial discussions that both disputants openly criticized.
So by all means, keep the discussion flowing. But next time, let’s make sure it has somewhere to go.
On Second thought: How journalism can recover from flawed coverage of the 2016 election
Pop Quiz: Identify the following quotation:
“Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic.”
A) Friedrich Nietzsche on the BibleB) Richard Nixon on the Vietnam WarC) Jon Stewart on the 2016 ElectionD) You on the Moulton vs. Thorne Debate
Read on for the answer.
It’s a strange, strange time to be a young journalist. Frankly, it’s probably strange to engage in any number of professions at this point in our country’s history, but boy, is it a strange time to be a young journalist.
At 11 p.m. on Election Night, staring numbly at the talking heads pontificating with all their might on the screen before me, I remembered a bit of text from David Brooks’ recent book, “A Road to Character.” In it, Brooks writes, “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blow-hard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am.”
In a letter from 1956, C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend: “That journalists can be saved is a doctrine, if not contrary, yet certainly above, reason.”
Even before then, the always pithy Oscar Wilde wrote: “There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”
I could go on. My point is that journalism has never been immune from public scorn or even from the scorn of fellow journalists. Media-bashing isn’t new.
But if you’re still wondering, the answer to the above pop quiz is B, Richard Nixon on the Vietnam War. Gotcha. Hopefully the answer was fairly obvious, but it says something about the current state of American journalism if you even had to think twice about it, which, if you’re under the age of 35, you probably did.
So disdain for the media isn’t new, but it certainly has changed. Even before these dreaded 18 months of torturous babble disguised as an election got underway, journalism of all types was in a precarious cultural position. Just look at it now.
Perhaps Lewis is right and journalists’ souls are beyond salvation, but what about their profession? If every doctor you consulted told you that that little spot on your back was positively, surely, absolutely nothing to worry about and then you developed skin cancer three months later, you’d probably never go back to those doctors. Even if, after your skin cancer diagnosis, your doctors sent you a deeply apologetic letter telling you that your case alone had spurned them from their ignorant ways and that they were back on the path to medical integrity, you would still look elsewhere the next time you discovered a little brown spot on your back.
So why not do the same to the existing media? In the wake of this massive abnegation of responsibility, is there any hope for the future of news media?
I sincerely hope so. Perhaps the current generation of professional pundits have no hope of recovery, their cultural and intellectual authority having been thrown out along with your Hillary 2016 yard sign. But I am cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the next generation.
If the next generation of political reporters and pundits hopes to regain the trust of even a sliver of the public, we would do well to learn from this current catastrophe.
First, we should follow Brooks in being more upfront about our fallibility. Certainty—even the appearance of certainty—should be avoided at all costs. Pundits should reaffirm their commitment to complicating, not simplifying, political problems.
Next, we should learn our lesson about the limits of data and polling in reporting. Yes, data is important, and polls do offer some insight into the mind of the electorate. But we must learn that even numbers can lie and mislead. We ought to temper our zeal for polling with a sense of the variousness and unpredictability of the human mind. Talking to 20 living, breathing, human beings is sometimes more illuminating than viewing a graph of 30,000 data points.
Lastly, the next generation of journalists and pundits—against the grain of so much reporting today—must inject some empathy back into public discourse. Journalists must recommit to understanding and fairly representing the positions of those all across the political spectrum, and pundits on both sides must redraw the playing field so as not to pit the enlightened and the “woke” against the willfully ignorant and the superstitious.
As Oscar Wilde wrote elsewhere: “In America the President reigns for four years, and journalism governs forever and ever.” Perhaps there will come a day when we should let our understanding of journalism die, but today is not that day. With any luck, these four years will pass. We cannot let responsible journalism pass with them.
On Second thought: Divestment is right step, but BCA slogans reductive
BCA has proved itself right. Business as usual isn’t enough. So next time, skip the poster. If nothing else, it’ll save paper.
On Second thought: Digital detox: a break from social media may provide a refreshing perspective
I’m not on any social media platforms—no Facebook, no Instagram, no nothing. Like the vast majority of Bowdoin students, I have a smartphone, which I take practically everywhere with me. I text, I email, I take the occasional selfie. I was on Facebook for a few years in high school before deactivating my page prior to my junior year. I haven’t been on since.
But I’m not here to bash technology. If you’re in the mood for some technology-bashing, I can link you to one of the hundreds of articles that have been published within the last year in every reputable news outlet about how smartphones are turning us millennials into antisocial, apathetic and asinine zombies.
The issue isn’t that the authors of these articles are wrong (and in many cases, they aren’t), as much as that their apocalyptic, alarmist rhetoric is useless. The articles keep coming, yet iPhones keep selling, tweeters keeps tweeting and Snapchatters keep ... doing whatever it is that they do. Social media is a part of the fabric of millennial life. Rather than watch our elders get red in the face with indignation, those of us who have grown up with the stuff should try to get a better sense of the lifestyle that we live with an iPhone in hand.
I am not here to be self-righteous. Do I think my absence from the world of social media makes me morally superior? No. Despite how some media outlets make it seem, signing up for Instagram doesn’t also punch your ticket to a lifetime lived in a hazy, solitary and senseless purgatory. Social media usage on its own is an almost entirely irrelevant moral consideration.
My time “off the grid” (speaking relatively, of course), has nevertheless been informative. Maybe I miss out on the occasional celebrity Twitter war or that really cute picture of your friend’s baby cousin, but I still keep in touch with old friends, I still hear about campus events and I still keep up to date with the news. In truth, I’ve lost nothing from my digital hiatus.
I have gained something, though. I deactivated my Facebook account because I started to feel the virtual world creeping into the world of flesh and blood. I felt the nag to go places with my friends that would be conducive to a post-worthy photo and I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking of witty captions. I have a hunch that these feelings are far from unique.
Aside from the carefully studied and well documented tricks that software engineers use to make their products as addictive as possible, I suspect that social media is so appealing because it mimics the process of self-building while doing away with all the friction of actual self-building. By self-building, I mean the whole network of things that we do to build an identity from what we’ve been dealt—which ideas we gravitate towards, which people we associate with, our tenor of interactions, etc. In the non-technological world, much of this self-building is messy. You happen to argue for a position at a family dinner that your uncle thinks is deplorable, and absent faking sudden-onset food poisoning, you’re basically locked into that debate, whether you like it or not. Or maybe that really cute kid from across the hall sees you drunkenly shoveling mozzarella sticks into your mouth at Super Snacks. Maybe he’ll come up to you the next day to divulge his love of mozzarella sticks and you’ll live happily ever after or he’ll grimace and move on.
Even if unpleasant, these messy moments of interaction are formative. They force us to revise our sense of what is good, how we should act and who we should be.
These interactions by no means disappear on social media, but we gain a degree of control over them. We choose who to associate with, which comments to respond to and which bits of our existences to share. Much of the happenstance and friction that makes interaction in the material world meaningful has been controlled for.
This isn’t to say that everyone should delete their social media accounts for the rest of time. But for a little while? It’s not a bad idea. Many college students have been on Facebook since at least the beginning of high school, if not before. How long has it been since you went a day, a week, a month, without interacting online? Give it a try. Even if you’re one of those people who doesn’t post often, at the very least your thumbs will thank you for a week of rest. If distance makes the heart grow fonder, so be it. But at least you’ll return to the digital realm with a new perspective, a fresh sense of the benefits and hazards of the online world.
Assessing the significance of one of Bowdoin's core values
Aside from “just outside of Boston” and “I want to study environmental studies, too!”, the phrase most often inundating the ears of us untested first years is: “Bowdoin has a commitment to the common good.” In truth, the common good is everywhere: applicants can choose to write a supplement essay about what the common good means to them, recently accepted students receive a poster emblazoned with “cooperate with others towards common ends” and while signing up for pre-orientation trips, first years might notice that many of the trips are organized by the Joseph McKeen Center for—you guessed it—the Common Good. And this is all before even arriving on campus.
Once on campus, the deluge of common good-ness only continues, making an appearance in nearly every welcome address, in classes and during floor meetings. Only three weeks into the semester, students, faculty and staff alike descend on Farley Field House, wielding shovels and paint brushes to participate in Common Good Day, a day of service and community-minded fun.
Despite the super-abundance of appeals to this lofty ideal, my fellow first years and I have entered our time at Bowdoin with just as tenuous a grasp on this mystical concept as when we first received our letters of admission. The average first year probably knows that a commitment to the common good entails some involvement with volunteer organizations; the particularly inquisitive one might have discovered that the phrase is drawn from Joseph McKeen’s speech at the Opening of the College in 1802.
Yet a brief stroll around campus or a browse through the Orient’s archives confirms that this problem is not unique to first years; in truth, there appears to be no real consensus on what the common good really means. Just two weeks ago, two students criticized Common Good Day in a Talk of the Quad in the Orient for giving members of the Bowdoin community an easy sense of gratification while overlooking the deep structural inequities that the College perpetuates. The authors, urging students to engage more critically with the College’s ideal, prompted readers to reflect upon their personal commitment to the common good. As the writers themselves point out, “[these words] can be used to justify almost any action.”
Given that the common good is just that—common—perhaps we should be asking not what the common good means to each individual, but rather what it means to us, the Bowdoin community as a whole. If we hope to rescue this powerful ideal from the grasps of inarticulacy, we ought to attempt first to unearth its origin, beyond its emergence in President McKeen’s address. As the philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his 1989 book, “Sources of the Self,” the language of common goods first surfaced among a circle of 18th century thinkers known as the Deists. Often seen as the middlemen between theology and modern science, Deists eschewed the notion that God acted continuously on the workings of the world, arguing instead that God, having created the world to operate by certain principles, let it be. We can discover those principles, the Deists argued, through the methodology of the natural sciences. Reverence for God, then, comes not from his constant involvement in the world, but from his benevolence: the knowledge that he created a world, as Taylor puts it, “in which the purposes of the different beings inhabiting it...so perfectly interlock. The world was designed so that each in seeking his or her own good will also serve the good of others.” This goal of harmonious ends is the common good, or as Deist philosopher Matthew Tindal wrote, the “common Interests, and Mutual Happiness of [God’s] rational creatures.” James Bowdoin, himself a prominent man of science, would certainly have been familiar with these ideas. “The writings of Arminians and Deists...filled Bowdoin’s library shelves,” wrote Bowdoin’s biographer Frank Manuel.
Although many, if not all, in the present-day Bowdoin community have left behind the Deists’ providential theology, there is nonetheless something important to be learned about our sense of common good from this genealogy. What is praiseworthy, even divine, for the Deists is that personal goods, when structured correctly, can serve the goods of the many—that we must not deny our own good in order to serve the goods of others.
Absent the hand of providence, this aim is still possible through the proper institutional structures. Within these structures, it is through one’s own particular excellence, not by stepping outside of it, that an individual can contribute to the common good. The math major need not take up a shovel, nor the environmental studies major a frying pan, in order to serve the common good.
Within a community of exceptionally talented and exceptionally bright individuals, this, I believe, is a sense of the common good, which could, once again become, well, common.
Ian Ward is a member of the Class of 2020.