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The Common Good as the Ongoing Conversation about Schooling

This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

Developed democratic nations—the US and many other nations—provide free schooling for everyone. It seems remarkable, particularly considering that most nations do not provide other essential services for free: not water, electricity, or housing! Schooling seems to be particularly important. In the US we call them “public” schools.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Although the federal constitution does not mandate these free, public schools, state constitutions do. The states use varied phrases: for instance, “thorough and efficient” in Ohio and 10 others, but 18 states note the importance of education and knowledge for liberty, the rights of the people, and good government (Hunter, 2011).

So free public schooling is part of the common good (sometimes called the public good). What does that mean? What is the common good?

The idea has a long history that originates in philosophy. Plato (428-347 B.C.E) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) elaborated the idea of “the good” in formal terms. For Plato, the highest good was the standard by which the goodness of everything would be judged. Plato was an idealist. Aristotle, by contrast, was more practical. For him, the question of “the good” pertained to living. The good life was a happy one, and the foundation of happiness was virtue. But, according to Aristotle, the foundation of virtue—for human beings—was the capacity to reason well: good thinking. A good society, then, was one in which good thinking prevailed.

The ancient Greeks, however, organized themselves around small units: their “societies” were about the size of American towns. Their political organization—and their civic organizations—were very small relative to contemporary organizations.

So, a more contemporary view of the common good began to appear as larger political organizations emerged: republics (as with the Romans). That very word republic is made up of two Latin words, res + publica, which translates as “the public thing.” The chief characteristic of a republic, then, is to focus on the common good.

Rome was an early and great republic (for a time) and wise Romans like Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) understood that it was easy to lose the focus on the common good.

Though liberty is established by law, we must be vigilant, for liberty to enslave us is always present under that very liberty. Our Constitution speaks of the “general welfare of the people.” Under that phrase all sorts of excesses can be employed by lusting tyrants to make us bondsmen. (Cicero, Second Oration)

Losing focus is easy because the common good isn’t a thing (not free water, free electricity, free housing, or free schooling). It is a kind of conversation about the “public thing,” the common good that a republic pursues above all else (Bellah & Tipton, 2006). As the practice of conversation and the decisions and actions resulting from it, the common good is on-going. The common good should be continuously engaged and must continually evolve (Etzioni, 2015). If, to the contrary, it is regarded as something already accomplished, then it will exist only as an eroding residue. It will crumble away. Or be stolen. This is a truth Cicero understood because he saw it happen and died as a result.