Encompassing Bowdoin

Peter Wood

Peter Wood's article was originally published in First Things here.

What Does Bowdoin Teach? That’s the title of the 360-page report that my colleague Michael Toscano and I published on April 3. Coincidence gave us a nice round number of pages, but it was indeed our plan to compass Bowdoin College. We set out to create something new: a full 360-degree picture of a liberal arts education at one of America’s most highly regarded colleges.

Our big picture of a small college has unexpectedly hit a nerve, and not just at Bowdoin. The “Ouch!” has been heard even at First Things. I’ll come back to that.

Circumstances gave us Bowdoin. We could have studied Bates or Colby—if we had wanted to stick to Maine. Or Middlebury, Amherst, Williams, Smith, Wellesley, Swarthmore, Haverford, Pomona, Reed, or . . . well, suffice it to say we had a choice of dozens of small colleges that present a similar profile: formally committed to the liberal arts, highly selective in admissions, well-regarded for the quality of their academic programs, and quite openly enthusiastic about a handful of contentious concepts. Those concepts include diversity, multiculturalism, constructivist views of “gender,” and environmental sustainability.

Liberal arts education has devolved, according to many critics, into advocacy for progressive ideas. Those who strongly disapprove of this advocacy often refer to it as indoctrination. Those who defend it often say it counter-balances the built-in tendency of higher education to favor the privileged and the powerful.

Whether it is to derogate or to defend this advocacy, public discussion tends to be dominated by examples shorn of context. What Does Bowdoin Teach? puts the context back in. We examine one college in depth with purposeful attention to how the parts connect. What a college teaches is more than what happens in the classroom. It includes what happens at student orientation, in the dorms, in student activities, and sports. It includes the disciplinary rules, the parties, and the subcultures. It includes student speeches, and the steps taken by administrators to promote “values.” The 360-degree view includes an immensity of detail, and the details often mean more when seen together than when taken one by one.

One thing that becomes clear from this perspective is the enduring influence of the college’s history. Bowdoin was founded as a Congregationalist college and its formal religious commitments lasted into the mid-1960s. Bowdoin’s current “values,” preeminently embodied in the redemptive creeds of diversity and sustainability, are a secularized incarnation of its religious past.

To bring the report to a wide audience we added an interpretive preface, “The Evidence of Things Unnoticed,” a foreword from William Bennett, and a brief letter to alumni from our financial backer, Thomas Klingenstein. These three features attracted attention from the Wall Street Journal and talk radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Dennis Prager.

Samuel Goldman at The American Conservative judged our study “rhetorically provocative, intellectually shallow, and generally unsympathetic to reasonable concerns about social inclusion.” Goldman, however, addresses little beyond Bennett’s foreword. Peter Lawler, writing on the First Things blog Postmodern Conservative, praised Goldman’s criticism, and then proceeded to announce what was really wrong with Bowdoin: that students are left to fend for themselves in a college with no “real requirements” and anemic faculty advising. We agree. In fact we make the same point in the report.

Goldman is right that the report is provocative but not in the bull-headed manner he suggests. Readers who find their way to the body of the report will discover a subtle kind of provocation in the widening gyre between the college’s stated purposes and its actual practices. We place the Bowdoin of today in the long shadow of the college’s history, back to its founding in 1794. We present minute analyses of course types, cross-listings, honors projects, division requirements, academic preparedness, and all the technical apparatus of curricular administration. Again, contrary to Goldman, “superficial” it isn’t. The technical detail leads the way to understanding how a college embodies key concepts such as “the common good” and gives compelling form to a political agenda.

Goldman also finds us “generally unsympathetic to reasonable concerns about social inclusion.” As the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, I am plainly on record as doubting that America benefits from classifying people by race and meting out social goods according to a racialized formula. But I strongly support “social inclusion” that arises when we treat people impartially. The mischief that flows from gerrymandering standards to create a preconceived version of diversity ramifies into consequences that even supporters of group preferences find dispiriting. But What Does Bowdoin Teach? doesn’t argue that. It just follows Bowdoin’s self-reported facts and faculty discussions. That’s the power of the report, and it is what we do with all the topics we take up.

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