Working for the Common Good

One way to encourage young people to be concerned about the common good is to teach them about “the commons.”

Students may find “the commons” a strange term. It’s not a part of their everyday vocabulary. What’s unfortunate is that the concept may also be unfamiliar to them. I first heard the term when I was in high school. The commons was the place where we ate lunch and hung out with friends before and after class. It was a gathering place, a common area. As long as everyone followed the rules and treated each other with respect, the commons was a pleasant place to be.

“The commons” is actually an old English term referring to a common parcel of land used by herders to graze their cows. A somewhat similar system in the United States today allows the grazing of livestock in the national forests. This system is not without controversy. 

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay in the journal Science discussing a dilemma we, as humans, face in making valuable resources (such as land) a part of the commons. In this essay—aptly titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”—Hardin describes the situation of herders adding more cattle to their herds to maximize their personal gain. The result was overgrazing of the land and eventual destruction of the pasture.

If the concept of the commons is foreign to our students, I’m concerned that the idea of the common good may be, too. The common good is that which is good for all people, not just one person or a group of people. In reference to the commons in Hardin’s essay, the common good would require each person acting in a way that would keep the pasture from being overgrazed and eventually destroyed. If they had acted accordingly, all would have benefitted.

The commons we need to be concerned about today is more than a pasture—it’s the entire natural world. In Hardin’s essay, the lack of concern for the common good resulted in the loss of livelihood for all the herders. In today’s world, the destruction of the natural environment would be a more serious loss for all of us.

Hardin’s essay is sometimes used with older students to help them understand the difference between renewable and unlimited resources. The pasture for the herders represents a renewable resource. As long as there were limits on how the pasture was used, the pasture stayed healthy. What destroyed the pasture was individual greed—seeking what is beneficial to the self at the expense of what is good for the community.  

Hardin’s essay might also be used with students to help them understand that caring for our common habitat, the Earth, means caring for and about each other. The message to save the Earth isn’t just about the Earth—it’s about all of us. One way to help students grasp the idea of the commons and the common good is to have them participate in an exercise where they need to decide who benefits from a particular activity or rule: Is it just one individual or group who benefits or is it the larger society? With this exercise, students might also be asked to identify how the individual, group or larger society benefits or gets hurt. Here are a few examples for them to consider:

  • Grazing of cattle on all public land is allowed without restrictions.
  • Limits are imposed on the number of fish that can be taken from a lake.
  • Fines are imposed for littering in public places.
  • People are allowed to smoke wherever they want to.

Another activity you might do to help students understand the need to consider the common good is to engage them in developing a set of classroom rules that would benefit the entire group. You might also challenge them to think of a “bumper sticker-type” slogan that expresses the basic concept of working for the common good. “Better together” and “We matters as much as me” are two examples.

A premise of Hardin’s essay is that each man was locked into a system compelling him to seek personal gain even if this resulted in harm to the common good. A similar thought held by some people today is that human nature is fundamentally selfish and that we each exist for our own sake. Others, however, propose the opposite—that we are by nature caring and altruistic. We can certainly point to examples of individuals whose behaviors support both views.

One thing we do know, however, is that how we are nurtured or taught plays a role in who we become. As teachers, we can help students become more caring and considerate by helping them understand the concept of the commons and what it means to be concerned about the common good.

An excellent resource for more discussion ideas is On the Commons.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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