Bowdoin College's Liberated Students

Michael Toscano

As you first years have chosen and registered for courses over the last couple of days, the specificity of many of the titles may have given you pause. For in our day and age, the pursuit of knowledge, the so-called ‘life of the mind,’ seems indelibly marked by specialization and, with it, a sense of fragmentation and the potential for being overwhelmed by rapid change and the production of new information.”

Cristle Collins Judd, Dean for Academic Affairs, Convocation Address, 2006.

On April 3, 2013, the National Association of Scholars will be publishing What Does Bowdoin Teach?, its study of the curriculum, student activities, and residential life of Bowdoin College. It will be available here on, on our page dedicated to the Bowdoin Project. Leading up to its publication, we have posted a series of Preliminaries which provide the report with greater context and color. While we have covered a range of topics—including the history of Bowdoin’s efforts to provide financial aid to poor students—we have focused most on the conceptual shifts that the college made during the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, we highlighted Bowdoin’s reimagining and refashioning of its curriculum and of its faculty.

To review, the curriculum in 1968 featured a well-coordinated system of general education requirements; as of 1969, those requirements were abolished, and students could graduate from Bowdoin having completed 32 courses of their choosing, provided they fulfilled the requirements of a major. This has had lasting effects on Bowdoin's curriculum.

The Faculty has also been reimagined. For most of Bowdoin’s history, its Faculty was a collegiate body whose main pedagogical purpose was to contribute discrete portions to one wholly formed undergraduate curriculum. But this vision of the Faculty’s role slowly changed with the appointment of research-oriented scholars who were increasingly interested in teaching their own academic specializations and in further pursuing their own research.

Lastly, the student was reimagined. This final Preliminary for the Bowdoin Project, “Active Learners: The Liberated Student,” will close the circle and briefly highlight the ways in which the Bowdoin student was re-conceptualized to accommodate these larger curricular and faculty changes.

* * *

Since September 2011, NAS has been conducting an in-depth, ethnographic study of Bowdoin College in Maine. We asked, “what does Bowdoin teach?” and examined Bowdoin’s formal curriculum, its residential and student life policies, and its co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. We have dedicated a page on our website to the Bowdoin Project. The full report will be published there in April. In the meantime, we will continue posting a series of Preliminaries which will provide context for the report.

The Bowdoin Project >

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