Campus News

Should Common Hour Include More Voices?

Story posted November 10, 2000

While Common Hour is beneficial, and has brought some noteworthy speakers to campus, it should be expanded and altered to allow "the messiness of genuine leaning," according to Professor of English David Collings.

Collings used his encore lecture at Common Hour to challenge the premise of Common Hour and the idea of the Common Good.

When deciding what to speak about, he said he began thinking about community, and what it meant. He came upon some troubling notions about the basis of community. "Community never comes without certain cost," he said, "to give someone a sense of belonging, means to exclude.
"Community is always exclusionary."

Even the ways in which colleges are ranked reflects this; part of the college’s ranking in the US News list depends on our selectivity.

"Our prestige, in short depends in part on how many people we turn away," Collings said. "The threshold of entry here is fairly high, and the similarity of those entering here is also very strong." If Bowdoin has a sense of community, he said, it relies partly on those who do not come here.

There is a backlash to this though, and Bowdoin is constantly seeking, through new programs and financial aid, to create a more diverse population, which creates tension between what the community is and what it would like to be. Dissatisfaction with the current state, however, is a good thing, according to Collings, since contentment leads to complacency.

"What we need is more dissent," he said.

Collings then turned his sight to the oft-mentioned Bowdoin ideal of the Common Good. If so much of what the Bowdoin community is depends on exclusion, the idea of the Common Good depends somewhat on old aristocratic ideals of an obligation to the less fortunate, he said.

"It turns out the ‘common’ in ‘Common Good’ refers to other people, the common people," he said. By depending on exclusion of certain people, but claiming to be for the Common Good, we appoint ourselves their leaders.

The cure for this elitism, Collings asserted, is not to turn the job of caring for the common good over to others, but to give up the idea that a Common Good exists, but that there will always be many competing interests.

"I would suggest then, that our ambivalence about community comes from a basic democratic impulse." Democracy is special for the way that it respects dissent and resistance to the status quo, he said. "Democracy is the anti-Utopia."

"The college mission is not to serve the common good, but rather to be a thorn the flesh of our contemporaries," he said, "
to provide a space for passionate collective disagreement."

To that end, Collings suggested bringing a bit of dissent into Common Hour.
Though he applauded those who had organized Common Hour, he suggested an expansion of what Common Hour has been to date. Rather than all listening to the same speaker, usually someone who has known great success in the world of art, business or community service, he suggested opening up Common Hour to additional voices, to "democratize" it.

Collings advocated several gatherings taking place at the same time, concerning widely varying topics and allowing discussions among people with different disciplines. Dialogue should be the goal, he said, and Common Hour should bring people together who would not otherwise have the chance to question and debate one another.

College should be a time of "perpetual intellectual crisis," Collings said, with Common Hour playing a part in it. If the College is successful in this, students should leave saying "Bowdoin will ruin your life in the best possible way."

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