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Peculiar Obligations

In the more than two centuries since Joseph McKeen first introduced the idea that graduates of Bowdoin College were under 'peculiar obligation' to exert their talents for the 'benefit of society,' an education for the common good has meant many different things to many different people, as well as the College collectively. At times, we have disagreed sharply and argued passionately over those meanings. In other moments, we have worked together to promote positive change, helping to improve the College – and the world in which we live - in the process. This collection of resources presents various interpretations of the common good throughout Bowdoin’s history.

Peculiar Obligations: Historical Perspectives on Bowdoin College's Commitment to the Common Good

Overview

What is the common good and how has its definition changed over time? In 1802, Bowdoin College's President Joseph McKeen declared that "literary institutions," such as Bowdoin, were "founded and endowed for the common good" and that each of its graduates was under "peculiar obligation to exert his talents" for the benefit of society. Since McKeen's era, Bowdoin students and alumni have sought to fulfill this call in a variety of ways. Drawn from research conducted by students, these case studies offer insight into their efforts and encourage viewers to consider questions central to the College's history.

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Before the First World War, Christian missionary work characterized Bowdoin student and alumni international service activities. During the period between World Wars I and II, however, missionary activity lessened, and by the late 1950s, participation in international service re-emerged as a secular undertaking with the additional goals of promoting international understanding and exchange. This transformation, however, lies beyond the secularization of higher education and American society in general.

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During the 20th century, Bowdoin saw the rise of two public affairs research centers, the Bureau for Research in Municipal Government and the Public Affairs Research Center, developed to increase students' prowess for public service by engaging directly with local government and issues of importance in Maine.  Neither institute, however, was sustained over time. Why? Examining the Bureau's history provides insight into how changing times, financing, ideology and leadership impacted the College's historical civic connections with the local community.

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In response to the demands of World War II, many colleges and universities questioned the value of liberal education and increased opportunities for student technical training and specialization. Bowdoin, too, responded to wartime needs, becoming a training ground for military recruits. However, its administrators and faculty also worked to maintain liberal courses of study, even hosting an Institute on Liberal Education.

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Throughout Bowdoin's history, student government has played a central role in training students for lives of active citizenship in a democracy. Particularly between the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1980s, Bowdoin College served as an ideal workshop in democracy for student leaders. Examining these leaders' successes and challenges allows us to see how both the College and its student government have changed over time.

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How did the Orient serve as an "institution of democracy" in a manner similar to mainstream newspapers between 1950 and 1965? While seeking to fulfill the four democratic purposes of the American press (to inform, to scrutinize, to debate and to represent) the Orient also played an important educational role at Bowdoin as its editors and contributors navigated the paper's complex connections to administrative authority while trying to operate as a free press.

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In 1970 as protests erupted on college campuses around the nation, students began discussing a strike at Bowdoin. Although this presented the possibility of an unprecedented emergency situation for Roger Howell, Bowdoin's 10th and youngest President, he united with students and faculty and made the decision to strike a democratic and communal one. Under his careful watch, the Bowdoin Student Strike unfolded civilly, ultimately allowing Howell to realize his vision of a "fresh start" for Bowdoin.

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In 1972, a group of Bowdoin students who volunteered in the Brunswick community created the Voluntary Services Program (VSP) Committee, hoping to encourage their peers to volunteer. Corresponding with the national trend, over the next three decades a number of dedicated students, faculty, staff and alumni worked to increase the visibility and accessibility of community service and service learning opportunities. The result was not only increased involvement, but led to the development of the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good.

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A Collection of Recent Speeches Given at the College about the Common Good