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"For the Public Good" Spring 2012 event series explores public education and public space

Last semester, Barnard kicked off a multi-year, interdisciplinary project entitled "For the Public Good," supported by a grant from the Virginia C. Gildersleeve Fund. The inaugural event gathered a panel of scholars for a broad examination of the public good from philosophical, historical, and economic perspectives and a discussion of the impact of current privatization trends on issues that affect society as a whole. The series aims to stimulate thoughtful consideration of these issues.

This semester, the series continues with two lectures addressing more specific topics. On Tuesday, February 21, Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch will deliver a lecture entitled Is a Public School a Public Good or a Shoestore? And on Tuesday, March 6, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman will speak on Public Space and Public Consciousness.

Here, education professor Lee Anne Bell answers a few questions about the "For the Public Good" initiative.

Q: What are the main objectives of the "For the Public Good" initiative? How did it come about? How are faculty, students, and the broader community getting involved?
A: In the past year, many of my colleagues and I have been noticing a trend where market terminology and frameworks are being applied to areas of public life not previously viewed through that lens. The notion of "public good" came up in these conversations, and we began asking questions about what aspects of our society should and should not be looked at in terms of individual or private profit and gain. These discussions grew into a more formal Willen Faculty Seminar, and from there we began planning ways to bring these issues to a much wider audience.

The events this semester are attracting a lot of interest, not only from students and individuals and organizations directly connected to the specific topics, but we're also finding that there is a group of people who are curious about the broader notion of public good and eager to engage in this kind of dialogue. We're hoping to see more of this carry over in attendance as the initiative continues.

Q: Tell us about the speakers coming to campus this semester. Why are their topics (public schools and public space) particularly relevant right now?
A. Education is a prime example of a public good. Recently I was reading an article about an entrepreneur who is looking at K-12 as the next big growth area, which raises the question: Is public education an area where private profit can or ought to be made? Is that the way we should be thinking about our schools and our children? Hearing from Diane Ravitch will be fascinating. She is one of our nation's leaders in thinking about and asking questions about the type of educational system we need. She is a historian of education and a research professor at New York University, and served as the assistant secretary of education during President George H.W. Bush's administration. She was an early proponent of the No Child Left Behind legislation, but has since done a complete reversal and become one of its most eloquent opponents.

The notion of public space has really captured New York's attention recently. This past fall, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was taking over Zuccotti Park—a semi-public space—there was a resurgence of interest in the issue of how and where people in a democracy gather to discuss the issues of the day. Soap boxes no longer exist in our society, but the need for that kind of open discussion is still very much at stake. Michael Kimmelman is an architecture critic for The New York Times. He has written about the power of place in shaping our imagination about public participation, and his lecture will address this idea of thinking about space as a public good.

Q. What is next for this initiative?
A. We are hoping to see more and more engagement, particularly among students. One theme we're considering for next fall is the question of what democracy looks like here and around the world, and the role of public imagination and activism in shaping democracy. Within that theme we might, for example, look at the opportunity to participate as a public good, and examine the role of private money in shaping the electoral process and the media that reports on it. We are also thinking about higher education as a public good, and the purposes of higher education in a democratic society. Do colleges and universities exist to train workers, make the U.S. internationally competitive, or to create informed citizens?

Prof. Bell is the Barbara Silver Horowitz Director of Education. For more information, read reflections from Barnard faculty and students after last semester's inaugural event.