In Joseph McKeen’s inaugural address, delivered at the opening of the College in 1802, this one line has stood the test of time and continues to influence Bowdoin’s self-image to this day: “…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.” But in the two centuries that have passed since McKeen delivered his address, we have become disconnected from the original meaning of the “common good.” I think the typical way we handle the topic of the common good today is to sidestep the full moral implications of the term. We take it to mean that a liberal arts education is meant to educate students to make a meaningful impact in the world and that the very act of being here and receiving an education is in some way contributing to the common good.
Last Friday, the U.S. Senate finally filled the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Antonin Scalia’s death last February. Everyone knew it would be a contentious fight to determine his replacement, but I don’t think anyone expected the precise turn of events that have brought us to this moment.
In 1850, Bowdoin’s very own Nathaniel Hawthorne published “The Scarlet Letter,” a novel set in 17th century Puritan New England. Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Puritan character remains the image most people have in mind when they think of what a Puritan must have been like: stodgy and conservative, highly intolerant of other religions and denominations, disdainful of pleasure and committed to very strict standards of orthodoxy.