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What is the Common Good anyway?

April 19, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board.

In his inaugural address, President Joseph McKeen said, “It ought always to be remembered, that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”

How far have we strayed from this purpose?

Last week, President Clayton Rose announced that Arthur Brooks will be coming to campus as the inaugural Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow. Brooks is currently the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and will soon join the faculty at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. His role is intended to bring perspectives not normally represented onto campus.

Less clear is what Brooks will be doing next year, and even President Rose is not sure yet. The announcement email mentioned lectures, meetings with students and class visits. While the lack of political diversity on campus is one problem, it’s not apparent how, in two days each semester, Brooks will diversify campus opinion, and it’s even less clear what that has to do with the Common Good.

In an email to the Orient, Brooks wrote, “How we operationalize the common good in ordinary life is a question worthy of a great college like Bowdoin, so I hope to help facilitate an exploration of policy, politics, culture and the role higher education can play in these things.”

Recently, it seems like time and time again the Common Good has been reduced to “these things.” It is one of the three potential topics for Bowdoin’s supplemental essay, but what happens after that? For many students, their deepest engagement with the Common Good is on Common Good Day—four hours one afternoon in September. This year, only 500 students even participated in that. During the rest of the year, student-led groups at the McKeen Center struggle to find volunteers. For all our talk about the Common Good, it is hard to see where, if at all, our actions match up. Students who filled up an entire essay about their dedication to the Common Good in high school suddenly don’t find the time for it once they get here. Bowdoin hasn’t made the Common Good a priority, and the student body has not stepped up to embrace it either.

The McKeen Center does a lot of great work. But outside of that, the College often throws around the term “the Common Good,” with little sentiment or purpose. We as students have no sense of what the Common Good is, and appointing Brooks as the first Joseph McKeen fellow without a plan for his time here doesn’t bring us any clarity.

When we slap the Common Good label on any and every initiative, it delegitimizes and devalues what is supposed to be one of the core tenets of our school. We want an administration that imparts an ethos of the Common Good, and a student body that embraces it in our own lives. But in order to make that happen, we all need to start to define what it means.

This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is composed of Anjulee Bhalla, Nell Fitzgerald, George Grimbilas, Roither Gonzales and Jessica Piper.  


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  1. Current student says:

    It’s true — the college loves to paste “the common good” ALL over our brochures and make people who come to Bowdoin feel like they are helping to create a little utopia, but they fund sports by the millions and barely give a sliver of money to the McKeen center (or incentivize students in any way to do service work while they are here!!) They won’t pay their workers a livable wage while creating an opulent country club for the children of millionaires!!

    Arthur Brooks wrote a whole book on charity, ran a conservative think tank, and thinks he knows what service means. Lol.

  2. Class of 2017 says:

    Not only is the common good being defined nebulously, but also the American Enterprise Institute has a long history of rejecting most proposals that speak to the idea of a common good. I stead, they advocate for radical individual responsibility and put the burden of success upon the individual rather than than the community. Whole one can debate the merits of social safety net policies, to name Brooks as our first McKeen fellow is ironic, to say the least.

  3. Sam Tung '09 says:

    I won’t be supporting Bowdoin during Brooks’ time at the college.

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