Bowdoin College, an elite university located in Maine, has recently found itself the nexus of a massive influx of controversy.
…And it’s all because its president talked down the wrong person.
Bowdoin President Barry Mills reportedly engaged in a golf game during the summer of last year with philanthropist and investor Thomas Klingenstein who, while not being a graduate of Bowdoin, was himself interested in the college’s approach to education. The result was an apparently awkward conversation during which Klingenstein complained of Bowdoin’s excessive celebration of “racial and ethnic difference,” in his words, rather than of “common American identity.”
It is unclear precisely how sharp the conversation got, but it evidently distressed Mills enough that he decided to mention Klingenstein (albeit not by name) in his subsequent commencement address as a particularly unpleasant golfing partner who’d interrupted his backswing to spout racist platitudes.
Needless to say, Klingenstein found this response galling. What he decided to do about it, however, is almost certainly unprecedented: Klingenstein decided to commission researchers to do an academic report on Bowdoin’s culture, both academically and outside the classroom, to see just what the college was teaching its students. The result was a 355 page report by the conservative National Association of Scholars that systematically broke down Bowdoin’s entire culture and worldview with extreme frankness. TheBlaze took a look at this report, and spoke to one of its authors, and you may be alarmed at the results.
What did that report find? That Bowdoin College, and indeed most of its peers in the elite liberal arts college community, is in fact:
A) Obsessed with identity politics to the point of using them as an excuse to teach irrelevant and/or trivial courses, and to admit underqualified and undereducated students
B) At once entirely unconcerned with fostering healthy sexual behavior in students and consumed with making sure they follow inconsistent and ideologically motivated norms; and
C) Disingenuous in their purported support for critical thinking, which only extends as far as thinking critically about topics which the college finds institutionally inconvenient
The report, which runs 355 pages, is split into two sections — first, there is the preface, which assesses the facts regarding Bowdoin and makes specific value judgments regarding those facts. Second, there is the report itself, which only explains the college’s behavior without passing judgment on it. The evidence for each of the above conclusions is too ample to rehearse in full, but a few highlights can be offered as examples to illustrate just what Bowdoin teaches.
A) Identity Politics
National Review’s Eliana Johnson, another reader of the report, summarized a few of its highlights on this point in an article last week:
The report documents an increasingly fractured academy that has no common curriculum and in which so-called identity studies take priority over a study of the West. It highlights, for example, the 36 freshmen seminars offered at Bowdoin in the fall of 2012. They are designed to teach writing and critical-thinking skills and to introduce students to the various academic departments. Some of the subjects are unsurprising: The Korean War, Great Issues in Science, Political Leadership. Others seem less conducive to critical thinking and fruitful classroom discussion: Queer Gardens, Beyond Pocahontas: Native American Stereotypes; Sexual Life of Colonialism; Modern Western Prostitutes.
Queer Gardens, an exploration of the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and of “the link between gardens and transgression,” simply “does not teach critical thinking as well as Plato’s Republic,” the report notes; nor does any subject that has “no canon of works that embody exemplary achievement in the difficult dialogic task of critical thinking.”
To many observers, such information might itself seem demonstrative. Yet the evidence goes beyond even these scattered examples. For example, in the section of the report that deals with distributional requirements, the authors observe (emphasis added):
When Bowdoin adopted the 2004 version of its distribution requirements, it took care to also provide a fuller rationalization for them than had been the case in previous iterations. In the new redaction the requirements were linked to a programmatic commitment to the ideal of “diversity,” which was in turn given a prominent place in the college’s new statement, “A Liberal Education at Bowdoin College.” Diversity serves an interesting function in the search for an underlying principle to give “coherence” to both the requirements and cohesion to the larger curriculum. It gives a warrant for politicization while at the same time frees faculty members, departments, and students to go their own ways. In effect, the elevation of diversity to the level of governing principle institutionalizes the incoherence that it ostensibly corrects. As far as divergent departmental interests go, it is an agree-to-disagree arrangement that demands very little of anyone other than deference to one of the shibboleths of the Left.
Double standards also abound. For instance, while students who choose to major in history are given the option to major in US history or European history, all history majors are required to take at least four courses that teach about history unrelated to either the US or Europe. In other words, history majors can leave Bowdoin with absolutely no instruction in the history of their own country, but cannot leave with no instruction in the history of non-Western cultures. The ideological bias is fairly obvious.
Nor does this concern with presumptively underrepresented subject material or peoples stop in the classroom. The report’s section on Academic Preparedness recounts several faculty members agonizing over how affirmative action admits are academically ill-prepared for the university’s rigor, in spite of their professed commitment to “diversity.” In fact, the college apparently provides surreptitious extra help to these students to prop them up through their tenure at Bowdoin, in spite of their publicly professed belief that diversity and academic standards are not at odds. The report notes:
In the Minutes of the Faculty, the “underpreparedness” of students is most emphatically linked with the college’s pursuit of racial diversity. This probably reflects a genuine gap in the level of academic performance of black students and members of other racially-defined segments of the student population. That is not something, however, that we can document, and even if true it might disguise a larger problem. “Majority” students may generally perform better than black students, but majority students may also be “underprepared” in significant ways. Indeed, that’s what the data nationwide attests, and there is small reason to think that Bowdoin is an exception.
This part is important to note, if only because it gives needed context to one of the report’s recommendations — namely, that more
introductory and/or survey courses in American history and other core topics be offered. While Bowdoin only admits 1 in 6 of the students who apply, and thus should presumptively count on those students having a superior grasp of such topics already, its extensive diversity programs make such a hope illusory. Reached by phone, Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, and one of the authors of the report, was devastatingly frank on this point.
“Courses that were truly taught at the introductory level might be below some of the students’ ability,” Wood told TheBlaze, “but then again, Bowdoin has a policy of admitting quite a few students either for athletic reasons or for diversity who don’t come anywhere near the academic attainment of the usual students. Those students may not need remedial courses, but they do need something. And Bowdoin has nothing to offer them.”
And if students want to avoid learning these basic concepts, but instead just imbibe politicized opinions without ice or water? The school’s so-called “studies” departments are happy to provide that as well. For just a sample:
Africana Studies today offers courses such as “Affirmative Action and United States Society,” “Black Women, Politics, Music, and the Divine,” “Transnational Africa and Globalization,” “History of African and African Diasporic Political Thought,” “The African American Experience in Europe,” “Protest Music,” “Global History of the Ghetto,” “A History of the Global AIDS Epidemic,” “Martin, Malcolm and America,” “Spirit Come Down: Black Women and Religion,” and “Race and Sexuality in Modern America.” This seems a scattered miscellany of topics, perhaps representing the scattered miscellany of the academic specializations of the faculty. It doesn’t, in any case, add up to a coherent curriculum. It is something of a model of the entropy—pedagogical, intellectual, and curricular—that is characteristic of the college. It does convey the “intersectionality” of the various identity-based programs. Africana Studies is plainly allied with Gender and Women’s Studies and with Gay and Lesbian Studies.
B) Inconsistent attitudes toward sex
One of the elements of the report that may draw some derision both from liberals and from more libertarian readers is the implicit urging by the authors that universities like Bowdoin act in loco parentis to their students, IE in the place of parents. The meaning of this suggestion is, quite plainly, that the university should attempt to inculcate moral norms in their students, especially with regard to sex.
In contrast, the authors argue that Bowdoin not only does not build character where sex is concerned, but actively encourages libertinism and dysfunctional attitudes among students by handing out condoms like candy and offering free coverage for venereal disease. It’s a moralistic position that some readers may find to be at odds with the report’s twin insistence that universities should promote openness of all kinds, even to conservative ideas, but Wood insists there’s no tension between the two.
“We are, and we say we are, operating from the premises of a classical liberal education, which is meant to shape mind and character, and both issues are in play at Bowdoin,” Wood told TheBlaze. “They have an idea of what the student’s mind should be like. They have an idea of what the student’s character should be like. Are they teaching different ethics? For sure they are. Is teaching ethics a bad thing? Not at all. But once you say you’re teaching ethics, it seems to me to be fair play to question what ethics you are teaching. And in this case, much of what they are teaching is open to a meaningful critique as destructive of the lives that are employing those values. I don’t see anything from Bowdoin that defends promiscuity as a good, but they promote it anyway.”
“Are we being judgmental about that?” Wood continued. “To a certain degree, we are, and there’s plenty of evidence in the psychological literature and the sociological literature that the lifestyle being promoted has negative long-term consequences on people hooking up, with multiple sexual partners, etc, have less stable marriages, have much higher divorce rates. The psychological consequences of this behavior pattern appear to set in and have long-term damage. Those are things that Bowdoin could at least consider or talk about to students in the same context of telling them they have sexual freedom.”
Yet even this license-focused approach has its limits, as for all its claims not to be morally invested in sex, Bowdoin is very much interested in promoting specifically ideological ideas about one particular facet of sex — namely, consent. Indeed, an entire play is put on at the beginning of the school year for freshmen intended to drill the importance of this concept into their heads. And while the concept of consent to sex is itself completely noncontroversial, Wood says the way Bowdoin understands it is inconsistent and difficult to parse.
“Bowdoin has not only an explicit set of rules about consent, but the rules being somewhat difficult to envisage, they also follow their rules with a bunch of hypothetical scenarios in which you can test yourself as to whether you’ve adequately internalized the rules,” Wood explained. “We do have a section in the report about that. It’s not intuitive to me. For example, one of the scenarios involves two young men. One of them invites the other to his dorm room to watch videos, and while watching videos, tries to take the hand of the other boy, and he refuses, and tries a second time, and is refused a second time, and at that point, the guest leaves. Is that a case of sexual harassment? Their answer is ‘Yes, it is.’ On the other hand, a male having sex with an intoxicated female who indicates willingness is perfectly okay under Bowdoin’s rules, so we’re in the realm here where the definitions are slippery, but since they’re promoting such an act of an adventurous approach to sexuality, there’s bound to be misunderstandings.”
Moreover, according to Wood, when Bowdoin does try to instruct its students about sex, it uses ideologically motivated, junk information.
“One of the things we looked at was the feminists on campus are quite worried about the low rate of reported cases of sexual assault and rape,” Wood explained, “and they have gone back repeatedly to both broaden the definitions and to find other ways to try to increase the rate of reporting, under the supposition that the assaults and rapes must be happening, but aren’t being pursued through the legal channels. They’ve been frustrated in this quest that even after lowering the definitions and putting many forms of encouragement in place, the rate of harassment claims is very low…They’re also fond of citing and continue to cite, despite its being an utterly discredited statistic, that something like one in four undergraduates in college will be raped. It’s made out of whole cloth. There’s nothing to substantiate that level of rape anywhere in America, let alone on college campuses.”
In other words, Bowdoin doesn’t teach its students to follow any set of sexual norms at all…unless those norms happen to be the ones advanced by the same identity groups who dominate the rest of the conversation on-campus.
C) Lack of critical thinking
Bowdoin professes to support “critical thinking” in classroom discussions, and to encourage ideological diversity in order to speed this process. In fact, given that President Mills’ speeches apparently make reference to a relativistic conception of “the common good” with fair frequency, some might even argue the school’s commitment to “critical thinking” and independent-decision making could err too far in one direction. Fortunately, in practice, this philosophical problem is avoided. Unfortunately, it is avoided in a way that the report’s authors suggest hamstrings critical thought far more than it ought:
Official Bowdoin projects two broad purposes: it aims to teach students to think critically and it aims to help them to develop into good citizens. Our claim that critical thinking is a Bowdoin goal is not likely to be contested by either the Bowdoin community or outside observers. Bowdoin is explicit and emphatic in its promotion of this goal. The first requirement for critical thinking is a genuinely open mind. “Openness” and “critical thinking” aren’t quite the same thing, of course. The first is really a precondition of the second. But for the moment we will treat them as near synonyms and bring in other requirements of critical thinking only as needed.[...]
The two Bowdoin goals—global citizenship and openness—actually push against each other. Openness requires skepticism and a sincere willingness to look for hidden assumptions, but Bowdoin’s understanding of global citizenship requires that some very large questions be settled in advance. A commitment to global citizenship requires a commitment to diversity (in its current understanding, the notion that each of us is defined in the most meaningful ways by the group to which we belong) and to the racial preferences that follow from diversity; to multiculturalism (all cultures are equal); to the idea that gender and social norms are all simply social constructs (an assumption that justifies virtually unlimited government intervention necessary to achieve the global citizen’s understanding of sexual justice); and to “sustainability” (which assumes that free market economic systems, and the materialistic, bourgeois values that drive them, are destroying the planet). These are notions that are not meaningfully “open to debate” at Bowdoin; indeed, a commitment to global citizenship requires that they not be open to debate. Students are encouraged to “think critically” about anything that threatens the college’s dogmas on diversity, multiculturalism, gender, and sustainability, etc., but, for the most part, not to think critically about those dogmas themselves.
This problem is so pervasive, the report alleges, that not only is there an absence of openness to conservative ideas, but the campus actively stereotypes them as “boorish,” and many classes treat liberal dogma as settled truth in their own syllabi. For instance, the “women’s studies” department describes itself as follows:
Courses in Gender and Women’s Studies investigate the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender and its meaning across cultures and historic periods. Gender construction is explored as an institutionalized means of structuring inequality and dominance.
Whatever one thinks of these ideas, they are hardly settled truth. The idea that gender is socially constructed, let alone that such a hypothetical construct would function to preserve dominance, is debatable even within academic culture. Yet the college simply defers to the department in allowing this apparent politicized reading of controversial concepts to continue.
These three problems barely scratch the surface of the full report, which also points out problems with Bowdoin’s uncritical attitude toward environmentalism, its ambivalence about the free market, the persistently opinionated stances of its President despite his apparent role as a neutral arbiter, or the uniformly Democratic voting habits of its professoriate. The report’s impact on Bowdoin as yet is unknown, but as criticisms go, it is quite possibly the most harsh analysis of a college’s culture since William F. Buckley’s book “God and Man at Yale” in the early 20th century.
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