Campus News

Sarah and James Bowdoin Day speech delivered by Naeem Ahmed '00 Oct. 2, 1998

Story posted October 02, 1998

THE UNCOMMON GOOD

President Edwards, Dean Bytes, Dean Bradley, Doctor Spence, fellow students, ladies and gentlemen,

This is my second year receiving this award. Last year, Congressman Tom Allen made a speech about the common good. The COMMON good is a COMMON topic at Bowdoin. A COMMON idea, COMMON knowledge, COMMONLY understood, COMMONLY accepted, and, of course, COMMONLY revered. It begins to sound almost COMMON place, does it not? COMMON place and taken for granted: that we at Bowdoin feel, that somehow, by coming here, we all HAVE the COMMON good. We carry it around like a pocket book, a feather in our hat, to be flashed and cited at every opportunity. And what we actually do with the COMMON GOOD gets lost in implementation. We just feel content in the comfort of HAVING it.

I remember Mr. Allen's speech because I liked his explanation of what we interpret as the COMMON good. He said that the good that we experience as individuals does not sum up to the COMMON good or good for all. Meaning that the building blocks of the COMMON good are not some selfish imps pulled along by an invisible hand, but a collective that realizes that the good of the individual is dependent on each individual working for the good of the whole. But we have all yawned and stretched through so many, and no doubt, much more eloquent than my own, speeches about the COMMON good, that I will not even attempt to do the same again. Nothing against the speakers or their speeches, of course, but as I said, it's just becoming so COMMON place and dare I say fashionable, that we think we've heard all there is to be said.

So I am not here this evening to define the COMMON good. Neither do I want to ponder over what is good, and what is bad, because that, I think, is understood by all. And no, I am not here just to hear myself talk. Though if you asked most of my friends, they would say that is exactly why I am here. 'Talk a lot, and talk very loud: that is all Naeem likes to do,' they would say. I disagree, of course, and I hope that tonight I have something important to share with you all...

Despite Mr. Allen's clarification, there remains some ambiguity in our understanding of the COMMON GOOD. What is COMMON? Yes! COMMON! Can you tell me what is COMMON to YOU? Is this room COMMON to you? Are the people in this room COMMON to you? Is the person sitting next to you COMMON to you? What about the people outside? Those who didn't get the A's to get them in here. Are they COMMON to you? Is Brunswick COMMON to you? Or what about Maine? Is Maine COMMON to you? Maybe your hometown is COMMON to you. Your parents? Family? Friends? Maybe your whole State is COMMON to you? Or the entire United States? Do you think your country COMMON to you? This country is not COMMON to me. This education is not COMMON to me. The privilege of this education is not COMMON to me. This language that I am speaking is not COMMON to me. Having my parents here for parent's weekend is not COMMON to me. 'Enjoying' the Maine winters is certainly not COMMON to me. The food I eat here is not COMMON to me. In fact, while I'm talking of food, let me share with you a curious observation, one that has me completely baffled: All the students at Bowdoin, and I mean ALL, have complained that the food here is really bad! I mean, it really is COMMON knowledge that the food is bad. Everyone, as they sit around the table, eating the food that's really bad, complain that this food is really bad. But it is also COMMON knowledge that we are served just about the best college food in the country. This, in my limited length-and-breadth of the East Coast experience, is also true. That the food here is really the best that you can get at any college. But it is not COMMON to me to complain about any sort of food, much less the recognized-COMMON knowledge best food in the country. And so, I wonder why do we do it... It would almost seem that we are left with no more wars, no more famines, no disasters, no diseases, no intolerance, no injustice, no bigotry, no racism; NOTHING left to complain about, that now we must complain of food that is easily-readily-regularly served to us three times a day. But I digress. I am attempting to find something COMMON between us. Not just keep coming up with DIFFERENCES.

Is Allah COMMON to you, or is Jesus? Is dictatorship COMMON to you, or democracy? And how many human beings are COMMON to you? All five billion? Can Iran be COMMON to you? Can the Iranians be COMMON to you? What about Iraqis, Libyans, Afghans, Cubans? What about Pakistanis? Are they COMMON to you? Is fighting for oil COMMON to you, or fighting for blood? Is going to school COMMON to you, or growing wheat and sewing footballs? Sometimes I wonder... what am I even doing here? What COMMON good do I serve? I feel like a 1% of the 3% of the international students we have on campus so we may strut around with a high-flying flag of diversity. There is so much that us UNCOMMON between us. In fact, I bet that there are more things UNCOMMON between you and any other person in this room, than there are things in COMMON.

So then, if there is so much that is UNCOMMON, and so many conflicting interests, can there possibly be a COMMON GOOD? Is the COMMON GOOD for all, not just your neighbor, not your town, not your state, not your country... but a COMMON good for everyone possible? Surely there must be something in COMMON that can help us find a good for us all? Actually, there is. It's so simple, you would almost dismiss it as silly: we have our DIFFERENCES in COMMON. We are all DIFFERENT. And the answer to finding a COMMON good is even simpler: we work for each other's DIFFERENT good, not try to find a good that is the same.

The COMMON good does not mean that you and I have the same interests, it means that we are the recipients of what is good for us. The problem is that we assume that what is good for us must also be good for everyone else. We spend more time arguing and fighting about our DIFFERENCES than trying to accept them. But does this give us an answer to our question? Can we actually recognize and accept a good for others that is different from our own? Honestly, I can't be sure. But what I can be sure of is that among you are the George Mitchells and Bill Cohens and Tom Allens of tomorrow; people who get to define what our COMMON good is... people who go to a decent school with decent food and have a decent chance of making a DIFFERENCE. Now that's something to think about.

Thank you.

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