Faculty Series Explores Meanings of the Common Good

Story posted September 19, 2008

The concept of "the common good" defies singular definition, and yet, it is among the most enduring goals of humankind. How can we achieve more social and economic parity in our local communities and around the globe? What are our responsibilities to the planet? Can we achieve lasting change?

These ideas underpin Seeking the Common Good, a yearlong series of conferences, films, exhibitions, lectures and academic programs that explore divergent views of the meaning of the common good—often in the context of pressing public issues. The series is organized by Bowdoin faculty members, in conjunction with the opening of Bowdoin's new Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good on Sept. 26, 2008. Read story.

"Seeking the Common Good supports interdisciplinary groups of faculty in crafting programs that connect their courses and students to this exploration of the common good," notes Professor of Sociology Craig McEwen, senior faculty fellow at the Center. "An important part of Bowdoin's commitment to the common good involves helping students to deepen their educational experiences by examining compelling public issues from as many perspectives as possible."

Manufactured Landscapes
Manufactured landscapes

A yearlong examination of "the common good" sponsored by Bowdoin faculty begins with "Manufactured Landscapes," a series of films, lectures, exhibitions and panel discussions that explore the global implications of industrialization and waste disposal. Read more.


The yearlong program will begin with "Manufactured Landscapes," a series of film screenings, lectures, exhibitions and panel discussions that explore the environmental challenges of industrialization and waste disposal from a global perspective (see box). The series draws its name from a 2006 documentary film of the same title, which follows artist Edward Burtynsky as he photographs factories, dams and industrial recycling yards in China.

"The film invites you to think very critically and deeply about pollution and environmental issues in China and India," says Associate Professor of Asian Studies Shu-chin Tsui, one of the faculty members involved in the series. "The global economy is turning huge areas of China into factories, creating manufactured landscapes of factories," she says. "In turn, much of the e-trash from around the world computers, printers, etc.—is being dumped into Chinese villages, creating toxic waste. It is a power issue that isn't merely one nation's problem; it's a global issue."

The first event in the "Manufactured Landscapes" series is a Sept. 25th showing of Ali Kazimiís documentary film, Narmada: A Valley Rises, which chronicles the struggle of thousands of residents of Indiaís Narmada River Valley who stage a 200 kilometre non-violent march to oppose the construction of a dam that threatens to destroy their livelihood. Ashish Kothari, Mellon Global Scholar in Environmental Studies, who has been a leader in similar social movements in India, will introduce the film, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in Smith Auditorium.

Academic departments and programs that are formally incorporating "Manufactured Landscapes" and other programming into their discussion and coursework include environmental studies, Asian studies, gay and lesbian studies, sociology, gender and women's studies, visual arts, history, theater and dance, and film studies.

Among other events that are part of the Seeking the Common Good programming for Fall 2008, is a weeklong residency by acclaimed theater artist Norma Bowles, titled "Theater and the Common Good. " Bowles is founder of the educational theater company Fringe Benefits, which uses drama to address social issues and build bridges in diverse communities around the nation. In addition to conducting workshops with students from several departments and disciplines, Bowles will give a public lecture on Oct. 1, 2008, titled, "Wake Me Up When It's Over! Using Comedy to Set the Stage for Social Justice."

The opening of the McKeen Center provides Assistant Professor of Education Charles Dorn and his students a campus-wide platform for their ongoing research about the history of public purposes in higher education—in colleges throughout the United States, and especially at Bowdoin. "Peculiar Obligations: Historical Perspectives on the Common Good at Bowdoin College" includes a short-term and longer exhibition of research and artifacts showing how individuals from throughout Bowdoin's history have interpreted the common good and acted to fulfill the institution's civic function.

"An examination of these issues has been an intrinsic part of Bowdoin's academic mission since the College's beginnings," notes McEwen. "The complexities of today's challenges, however, demand even more of a liberal education and of the students seeking that education. Cultivating their mental powers "for the benefit of society" isn't a responsibility that is unique to Bowdoin, but it is a special obligation that comes with the privilege of education—according to Bowdoin's first president, Joseph McKeen.

"Through these kinds of public forums, we hope to sharpen the challenge to Bowdoin students to connect their learning to a wider commitment to public engagement and social change—while they're here, and long after they have graduated."

Among the activities planned for the Spring 2009 programming of Seeking the Common Good, is an academic conference exploring ways in which citizens and governments in post-communist societies are renegotiating the meaning of the common good.

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