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For the Public Good: A New Interdisciplinary Initiative

On October 13, scholars and activists from a range of disciplines gathered at Barnard to discuss the “public good,” and to suggest policies and directions that might best serve it. Over 200 students, faculty and members of the community attended this event, which inaugurated a multi-year, interdisciplinary project to examine issues that impact society as a whole, ranging from the environment and education to information media and public policy. Speakers included Barnard economics professor David Weiman, Michelle Fine of The Graduate Center at CUNY and Nancy Holmstrom of Rutgers University.  The conversation was moderated by Elizabeth Castelli, religion professor and interim director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Below, members of the Barnard community reflect on the topics discussed at the event.

Watch a video of the full event here. For more information about "The Public Good" initiative, please contact Lee Anne Bell.

Rebecca Stanton is an assistant professor of Russian in Barnard’s Slavic department. Here, she examines how societies think about the public good, from her First-Year Seminar on democracy in ancient Greece to the protests in pseudo-public Zuccotti Park. An excerpt:

What is the public good and how can we collectively produce, sustain, and defend it? The students in my First-Year Seminar recently wrapped up a three-week examination of these very issues, using a Reacting to the Past game entitled “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.” The students assumed roles as various stakeholders in ancient Greece, ranging from a fishmonger to a wealthy Olympic athlete, and from fiercely democratic soldiers to Socratic utopian thinkers. Based on their reading of ancient texts, they attempted to reach consensus through the Athenian model of direct democracy, the Assembly, right in our Morningside Heights classroom. Meanwhile, down in the Financial District, the same model was being used—albeit on a much larger scale—by the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

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Catherine Sameh is the associate director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.  Here, she reflects on themes discussed at Barnard’s inaugural “For the Public Good” event, noting relevant ideas conveyed by the Occupy Wall Street movement. An excerpt:

There was a striking synchronicity to the inaugural event in Barnard’s For the Public Good project on October 13, and the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement in staying an eviction from Zuccotti Park the following morning. Thousands of protestors gathered before dawn to let Mayor Bloomberg and the multinational real estate firm, Brookfield Properties, owners of the park, know that they would not be dispossessed of their space. Their space. The public’s space. A privately owned park repossessed by the public on their terms.

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Hilary Symington is a senior majoring in economics and art history.  Here, she considers interdisciplinary approaches to thinking about the public good, and how this applies to her academic and personal interests. An excerpt:

From the opening remarks, I was struck by the panelists’ different approaches. Nancy Holmstrom, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, quoted from a poster spotted at the recent anti-globalization protests in Europe: In protest of a world where everything has a price, but nothing has a value.” Barnard professor David Weiman, like a true economic historian, began, “I’ve been thinking a lot about Adam Smith lately,” referring to the 18th century economist and philosopher. Psychology professor Michelle Fine, from City University of New York, recounted an anecdote from an ecologist who raised the question of how nature responds to crisis by looking at New Orleans’ soaring oak trees that survived Hurricane Katrina. The ecologist reasoned that if we were like trees, we would lean on each other like the oaks—although tall and proud above ground, these trees are connected in a tightly knit web of roots below ground. Without one another’s subterranean support, they never could have braved the storm.

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