Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nothing offensive in the notion of ‘common good’

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (13 June 2010)

TERRE HAUTE — Last month the Texas Board of Education rewrote the curriculum standards for K-12 Texas schools. They review these standards every 10 years. The review is not unusual, but the politicization of the standards themselves is just another nail in the coffin of public education in the United States. The politicization of public education is inevitable to some extent, but the extremists who threw out a reference to the “common good” because, according to the Wall Street Journal, “… Don McLeroy, who leads the most conservative bloc on the board, said that ‘responsibility for the common good’ does not belong in the standards because it is a ‘liberal notion’ that edges toward communist philosophy.”

I guess that makes James Madison also a founder of communist philosophy because writing in 1787, in the Federalist Paper No. 10, he writes:

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Madison sounds like he was writing about today’s hyperpartisan environment. It describes the tenor of the politicization of the Texas Board of Education.

The Board also requires students to know about the influences of the Bible on America’s founding. But liberal leaning notions of responsibility for the common good (read communist influences) can be found in the teachings of the Apostle Paul. From I Corinthians 12:7 (NIV): “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” John Adams, one of the founders, wrote in “Thoughts on Government” (1776): “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; …” Another communist leaning liberal I guess.

Adam Smith is one of the economists and philosophers approved by the Texas Board of Education. He is quoted as having said: “… individual ambition serves the common good.”

The Board also scratched “justice” from a definition of good citizenship. Conservative extremists might not find Catholic social justice to be anything but liberal notions that edge us toward communism. But Pope John Paul II (any good cold warrior understands his role in breaking the back of the Soviets) wrote in “Centesimus Annus” (1991) about the superiority of the free enterprise system compared to “real socialism.” Nevertheless, he wrote:

“Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.”

I recognize that extremist conservatives may not be persuaded by liberal leaning Catholic ideology, but how about John Calvin? Not only is Calvinism seeing a resurgence, but his writings are gaining favor among extremist conservatives. Calvin is often quoted: “We know all men were created to labor for the common good.”

Politics is inevitable over defining the common good and how to obtain it, but to politicize the term is partisanship at its worst. As so many extremist conservatives like to frame it, it is not the individual vs. the group, rather it is a balance between the two, something that the wisdom in the above quotes surely show.

Extreme conservatism has discovered libertarianism, but I’d like to see Ayn Rand or her followers defend her famous quote: “America’s abundance was not created by public sacrifices to ‘the common good’ but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortune” to the families who have lost a son or daughter in military service defending our country. “Either-or” is the language of extremists, right or left.

Although the phrase “common good” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, an equivalent term does in the Preamble, as in “… promote the general welfare …” “Common good” appears in Section 27 of the Texas Constitution; the Indiana Constitution, too.

By the way, the phrase “common good” does not appear in the Communist Manifesto.

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