An Update on the Mess at Bowdoin

KC Johnson

This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on February 9, 2014.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, coordinating with the National Association of Scholars, hosted an event last Thursday continuing the conversation regarding the NAS' comprehensive report on what Bowdoin does (and does not) teach. The event, in which I participated, focused on the theme of global citizenship.

In his dismissive response to the NAS report, Bowdoin president Barry Mills proclaimed that--even as the college's mission statement promises to train students in "effective citizenship"--Bowdoin actually is "committed to preparing our students to become global citizens." While he has never quite explained what constitutes global citizenship, Mills has favorably quoted philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the point. In the event, such a goal (on which the college, intriguingly, hasn't formally updated its mission statement) relieves Bowdoin of any linkage between the school's mission and ensuring that the college is staffed with professors whose research might involve topics related to the foundations of American citizenship in history, the law, or literature.

NAS' Peter Wood opened the conference with a theoretical discussion on the nature of global citizenship. For the audience (around 120 attended, in the aftermath of a major snowstorm in southern Maine), he reiterated some of the key points of the Bowdoin report. Wood described Bowdoin's curriculum as based on a "clouds of confetti" approach, in which requirements were minimal and the organizing principle of too many classes (and what requirements exist) seemed to be to present the United States as a "uniquely oppressive place" where the weak are undermined, through a curricular obsession with themes of race, class, and gender. Wood intriguingly expressed his belief that Bowdoin represents a pattern in which too many universities seek not to understand the world as it is, but instead to structure a curriculum that will confirm campus doctrines on such matters as multiculturalism and social justice (of a particular type). Bowdoin's emphasis on global citizenship, in this respect, reflects broader developments in the academy.

The Hudson Institute's John Fonte suggested that perhaps Mills' celebration of global citizenship reflected an admiration for transnational organizations such as the EU or the UN, and that he sought to bring such bureaucratic values to Bowdoin. Fonte quoted from former AHA and OAH president Linda Kerber, who had urged colleges to structure their curricula around creating new types of transnational citizens; he also referenced the work of NYU's Thomas Bender--which, as I've argued elsewhere, uses an imaginary interpretation of the historiography to try and radically redefine how U.S. history is taught at the high school level. Bender celebrates transnationalism on the grounds that "some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in American history has been framed in ways that do not necessarily tie it to the nation-state -- work on gender, migrations, diasporas, class, race, ethnicity, and other areas of social history." In other words: Bender wants to use such themes as transnationalism and global citizenship to impose the tyranny of the current pedagogical majority in teaching U.S. history. I suspect that Bowdoin's Mills and the faculty he represents operate from a similar mindset.

ACTA's Michael Poliakoff opened his remarks by noting that the NAS report had exposed how Bowdoin had no requirement for either U.S. history or U.S. literature (even as it does have diversity requirements). He commented on the peculiarity of Mills' claim that Bowdoin seeks to train students to participate in the "global economy" without requiring its students to take even a single course in economics. What's occurring at Bowdoin, Poliakoff argued, reflects national patterns in which students seem to graduate from college with limited areas of knowledge, even as the United States spends far more per student on education than most other Western democracies. Like Wood, Poliakoff stressed the importance of an enhanced core curriculum.

Boston College professor Susan Shell presented at least a somewhat more optimistic take on the current state of affairs in higher education, urging the audience and her fellow presenters not to give up on the faculty entirely. (I'm more pessimistic, but I hope she's right.) Shell argued that a greater problem in the campus climate is administrators, who use such themes as "global citizenship" as a way to facilitate their control over the faculty; she called on reformers to make sure that they involve faculty in their efforts. Shell also strongly challenged the manner in which Bowdoin's Mills had envisioned global citizenship, offering instead an interpretation based on Kant's writings that suggested a far greater respect for national sovereignty.

Herb London delivered the conference's keynote address. London said that observers of higher education need to look closely at what's said on college campuses today; he specifically cited the global citizenship idea at Columbia. Instead of current fads, London advocated more emphasis on Western civilization and great books; absent such rich content, he perceptively observed, colleges' proclamations about teaching "critical thinking" amounts to little more than a cliché. London lamented the increasing fragmentation on college campuses, and worried that we're moving toward a system--as humanities essentially self-immolate--in which business students and their concepts will come to dominate student attitudes.

(By the way, my talk focused on the nature of U.S. history instruction, building off some of the themes in my series at Minding the Campus.)

What's next at Bowdoin? Absent some increased activity by key stakeholders (trustees, interested alumni), it's hard to see any improvement regarding the issue raised in the NAS report. Certainly President Mills, a fierce defender of the status quo, won't be addressing the questions.

Image: Public Domain

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