The Common Good as Subject and Spirit

Ralph Keen is dean of the UIC Honors College and professor of history and religious studies. The course he describes here was titled “The (Un)Common Good: Social Thought in a Diverse Society,” offered as a first-year course in the Honors College.  

How can an idea that seems to have receded from contemporary thought be brought back to the forefront? By turning it from a concept to an experience. 

A year of isolation for most and dislocation for all was actually the perfect time to develop a new course on the fabric of society and reasons for its fraying in recent years. The extent to which self-interest and in-group identity seem to have eclipsed concern for the neighbor who is not like us is an issue worth asking about, and there can be productive discussion about reasons for the decline of attention to the common good. Productive discussion among two dozen students describes my course last semester from the first week to the last. During a year seemingly suffused with gloom, a course about social unity and fragmentation might be an unlikely high spot. Yet it was the most satisfying course in my teaching career, and student evaluations reflect high satisfaction on their side as well. 

What made it a success? The essential factor was the diversity of the class and their engagement with the questions that ran through the course: are societies by nature closed? Necessarily hierarchical in organization? Who determines the dominant sorting system—race, language, religion—in a given culture, and to what end? Two dozen students, no two of whom to my knowledge shared the same background, brought their perspectives and in some cases brought their families’ stories to bear in bringing these issues to the front of our minds. As first-year students in a general-education course, they did not know each other, and were as different in their preparations and academic interests as they were in backgrounds and cultures. The only thing they had in common was being in the course. 

The composition of the class, together with their willingness to discuss hard questions, contributed in a unique way to the character of the course. For the majority of our authors from Aristotle onward, the population that addressed and maintained the discourse about the common good was coherent and homogenous, whether by political identity, religious culture, or privileged status within a given social organism. The idea of a common good, in other words, was shared among persons with a common identity, persons who formed a “we.” Discussions of the topic take a different form when those conversing have no obvious shared ground apart from being students at our school and in this particular class. Moreover, the power dynamics of social gatekeeping are real and personal for those whose education is their symbolic entry through the gate. 

Over the course of the semester as students got to know each other they began to see that their discussions were a common search for consensus, and came to recognize that the course was an experiment in the subject itself. Wrestling with the authors’ positions, sharing their own sense of the tension between homogenous community and a diverse broader society, debating the concepts of diversity and inclusion: these made every hour an exercise in either coming to agreement or respectful acceptance of different viewpoints. We became, in other words, a community committed to a common good marked by understanding and coexistenceThe subject of the course had become, at the end, our unifying bond. 

During the pandemic the class formed a community only in the virtual sense. The students’ various locations (actual as well as social), with unexpected appearances by others and who knows what sort of background noise for some of them, proved no obstacle to discussion and mutual engagement. They were expected to be every bit as present as if we were all in a classroom, and they were. When they return in the fall they will understand what we mean by community, not just having pondered it as an idea but having, despite obstacles, created one in the process of taking the idea seriously. 

 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

The conversation among participants focused on past, present and future possibilities of interfaith collaboration at HBCUs and among Black and African American students on other college campuses.
These women are influencing so many in their community by being beacons of the values they hold dear, and that is an incredible way to guide a community. 
While pursuing a master’s degree in Buddhist studies, Han decided to focus her thesis on documenting the nuances of Asian American Buddhists, a community that seemed almost nonexistent, she wrote.
He sees potential for future science-informed partnerships between the government and faith communities to tackle the pandemic.
What has happened in our institution provides a template for similar institutions who may be going through some challenges in establishing an interfaith program. It shows that being true to one’s faith and being inclusive are not opposites.
I hear my sisters and brothers calling out in cacophony, “Aint I a Human?” When Sojourner Truth considered the ways in which white women were revered and protected; when she witnessed the ways their gentility and femininity were affirmed and nurtured; when she experienced the contrast in how she was treated relative to those who shared her gender but not her color, she was compelled to ask, “Aint I a Woman?”
The following interview features Imam Makram El-Amin, who has led the Masjid An-Nur (Mosque of Light) in Minneapolis for 25 years and serves as executive director of Al-Maa’uun, the mosque’s community outreach organization.
The following interview features Anthony Cruz Pantojas, co-chair of the Latinx Humanist Alliance, an affiliate of the American Humanist Association.
The following interview features Micah Fries, director of programs at the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network and director of engagement at GlocalNet.
The church first started offering vaccine doses in January in an effort to boost the vaccination rates in New York City’s Black and Hispanic communities.
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. 
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, talks about the Catholic response to the pandemic.
Fred Davie joins Alia Bilal, Anthea Butler, Adam Russell Taylor and Eric Lewis Williams in a conversation that gets to the heart of how interfaith cooperation can be a part of accountability, justice, and reconciliation in America’s next chapter.
Two thousand volunteers of diverse faiths will engage people through their religious communities.
"Over the years, people have asked if I was 'called' to be a rabbi, and the truth is I don't know, but what I do know is I did listen to an inner voice which I now believe was a holy voice. That holy voice led me to listen even when I doubted..."
The USS Olympia is home to the Difficult Journey Home exhibit that opens May 28, and a historical marker will be unveiled during the Museum’s Memorial Day ceremony on Monday, May 31. Independence Seaport Museum
Six congregations gathered to mark the centennial of the massacre and to honor the persistence of the Black church tradition in Greenwood.
This past year’s pandemic and social isolation only made this worse. Consequently, hate crimes and systemic racism were more prevalent than ever.
Perhaps there is a bridge between who we are in aspiration and who we are in reality?
May each of their blessed memories be honored as we continue to work to make this land and this word a place of understanding, justice, and peace.
The composition of the class, together with their willingness to discuss hard questions, contributed in a unique way to the character of the course.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.