NAS Response to President Mills

Peter Wood

We are pleased to see that Bowdoin College president Barry Mills has responded to What Does Bowdoin Teach? In an essay, “Setting the Record Straight,” published in the college’s official news outlet, the Bowdoin Daily Sun, April 10, Mills cites the college’s openness to criticism and commitment to academic freedom as reasons to “answer the charges” in our report. 

While we welcome President Mills’s decision to engage the report, we are disappointed with the very limited approach he has taken. He offers a broad emotional response and then picks a handful of topics in which he erroneously thinks we got ours facts wrong. Our larger disappointment, however, is that President Mills leaves unaddressed the central themes of the report: unnoticed bias against views that differ from prevailing progressive ideas; curricular incoherence which results from a vision of the students as autonomous consumers, compounded by an ever-increasing narrowness of faculty specialization; the contradictions between the college’s vaunted commitments to openness and critical thinking, on the one hand, and its overriding ideological commitments, on the other; the displacement of intellectual standards by appeals to social justice; the college’s willingness to flatter students to the point of compromising educational desiderata; the erosion of intellectual community and its gradual replacement by popular enthusiasms; and the college’s retreat from positive efforts to foster self-restraint and other qualities of good character that are intrinsic to liberal arts education. On each and every one of these, President Mills is silent.

President Mills does make clear that his willingness to answer us at all required him to overcome considerable distaste. The report, he says, is “mean-spirited and personal.” It “exaggerates” and “misrepresents” and this is “the considered opinion of many members of our community.” 

These are harsh judgments. As the two authors of the report, we may be permitted a reply both to Mills’s general characterization of our work and his more specific observations. First, our report is not personal. Neither of us has ever met President Mills nor has any personal ties to Bowdoin College. We are anchored off-shore. We analyzed what President Mills and other Bowdoin officials have said in an effort to understand the college.

When he calls our report “mean-spirited and personal,” Mills may be thinking of his now famous dispute with Mr. Klingenstein, who funded our research. Mr. Klingenstein has answered that charge in his letter to alumni at the beginning of the report. But let’s leave the back-story aside for a moment. Does the source of funding or the possibility of bruised feelings—either Klingenstein’s or Mills’s—have any real bearing on the accuracy or the pertinence of the report?  We think the report should be weighed on its merits.

Our report is not mean-spirited. We sought over the eighteen months in which we pursued the research and writing of this study to understand Bowdoin in its own terms. We had nothing to prove beyond our competence in gathering a large body of relevant material and synthesizing it into a well-substantiated and accurate account of a campus culture. 

We are, of course, not the best judges of the result. The report has to be read closely and critically by others. We fully expect that fair-minded readers will spot factual errors as well as instances in which our interpretations of the facts have gone wide of the mark. When that happens, we will acknowledge our mistakes and make corrections. 

Fallibility is one thing. Exaggeration and misrepresentation are something else. Those words impute a motive: that we sought to tell a false story. On this point, Mills is mistaken. We sought to tell an accurate story. And knowing that its accuracy would probably be challenged, we sought to ground our observations as fully as possible in Bowdoin’s own documentary record. That’s why the report comes like a tortoise with a carapace of footnotes—over 1,162 of them, many to archival documents. We expect that people who doubt the accuracy of our points can and will check for themselves that the words we quote really are quoted accurately and in context.

This issue of accuracy and substantiation doesn’t really enter into President Mills’ response. He slips around it with several rhetorical moves. One such move is the “everybody knows” fallacy.  The “considered opinion of many” is that we exaggerate and misrepresent. Therefore we must be guilty of exaggeration and misrepresentation. The “many,” however, can be mistaken too, and in this case they are.

Mills’s response begins by citing a classic document, President Hyde’s 1906 “Offer of the College,” which extols the ideal of open-mindedness. But that’s as close as Mills comes to acknowledging one of the main ideas of What Does Bowdoin Teach? Our report explores in depth and in detail how much open-mindedness is to be found at Bowdoin today. But Mills doesn’t take notice of this point at all. He instead moves on to some other themes, starting with the assertion that we say, “Bowdoin is somehow un-American.”

We never make that charge. What we do say is that, “At Bowdoin, America is not exceptional, but Bowdoin itself is.” Bowdoin faculty and students and President Mills clearly have complex thoughts and feelings about the United States, some positive, some negative. We did indeed draw attention to some of the negatives because they dominate current discussion on campus: “Today, Bowdoin places little emphasis on the nation’s claims to distinction: its founding focus on human equality and freedom; its history of economic opportunity, invention, and free enterprise; and its willingness to sacrifice to secure the freedom of others.” This is our major claim on that particular topic and we stand by it.

Whether President Mills has accurately summarized this as amounting to “Bowdoin is somehow un-American” seems doubtful to us. The term “un-American,” evoking such things as the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s and 1950s, suggests that we approach the matter with a sensibility from the distant past. That’s false. 

Refuting a charge we didn’t make, however, gives President Mills the opportunity to mention that the “American flag flies high over our campus,” campus war memorials, and a visit by the United States Marine Band. The presence of these symbols on campus says something but has faint connection to our actual points.

Mills then turns to the history curriculum and acknowledges the accuracy of our observation that history majors are not required to take a single course in American history. His answer to this is that Bowdoin students take American history in high school and that virtually all Bowdoin history majors actually do take some American history by the time they graduate. In our view, high school history, including AP courses, is no substitute for college-level work at a college with Bowdoin’s reputation for academic excellence. It is good that Bowdoin history majors generally find their way to taking some American history, but we never said they didn’t. Our point is that the History Department in setting priorities chose to put a large emphasis (four required courses) on non-Western history and no comparable emphasis on American history.

Mills disputes our statement that “there are no courses devoted to political, military, diplomatic, or intellectual history except those that deal with some group aspect of America.” He offers by way of refutation a list of courses the titles of which suggest these topics might be covered. We have read the course descriptions for all of these courses and our point appears to stand. We mentioned two of these courses in our preface, History 231: Colonial America and the Atlantic World, and History 233: American Society in the New Nation, 1763-1840. As we reported, both are “Exploring Social Differences” courses that emphasize social history. In “War and Society” “emphasis is placed on contact between European and non-European peoples.” “The Civil War Era” has a very broad course description but is cross-listed with Africana Studies. “History of the American West” is an environmental history course that focuses on “Euro-American relations with Native Americans.” “The City as American History,” focuses on “race and class relations” and is cross-listed with Gay and Lesbian Studies. “Reconstruction” is cross-listed with Africana Studies, and focuses on the historiography of Reconstruction and “the Union attempt to create a biracial democracy in the South.” 

This is not to say or imply that these are poorly conceived or poorly taught. It makes good sense that courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction would deal with group aspects of America.  But their existence in the Bowdoin curriculum does nothing to refute the accuracy of our statement. The Bowdoin History Department has strong offerings in social history, but attends to other aspects of history including political, military, diplomatic, economic, religious, or intellectual history very infrequently and much less intensively. And, as we said, it does not “devote” any courses to these topics, which, when they are presented at all, are presented in conjunction with a “group aspect of America,” i.e. race, class, and gender.

Mills appropriately mentions the offerings of the Government Department. We highlight them as well. They are important and exemplary. Notably, it falls to a department and a discipline other than history to teach many of the key elements and written works in American history.

President Mills allows that some of Bowdoin’s First-Year Seminars have “provocative titles.”  They do. We listed the provocative ones among all the rest. We note a small error in President Mills’s account of “Queer Gardens.” He says the course was “proposed” but never “offered.” It was offered but cancelled because enrollments fell short of the minimum. He defends the course on its merits, as including works by Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, and Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett. “The point is that our students are reading and discussing great literature.” Our point remains that the First-Year Seminars often are, as we said, “more about their various topics than about systematic instruction in the discipline of English composition,” which is one of their stated purposes. Nor do they solve the problem of what Bowdoin calls “academic underpreparedness,” as they are intended to. We also observed that a course such as “Queer Gardens,” to the degree that it is intended to teach “critical thinking,” falls short of what a course on, say, Plato’s Republic might accomplish. President Mills is welcome to regard Burnett’s The Secret Garden as “great literature,” but the Republic is surely the better instrument for cultivating critical thought. 

Our larger point about critical thinking is that Bowdoin has taken the pedagogical position that any subject is as good as any other to acquire the discipline of critical thinking. We think that is a mistaken judgment. President Mills has not engaged the point.

President Mills reassures us in a glance at the last paragraph in our report that Bowdoin “regularly teach[es] courses that include the works of Spenser!” If so, the evidence is well hidden. Spenser is not mentioned in the Catalogue or course descriptions as included in any current English course.  

That is the sum of President Mills’s detailed response to our report. He alleges that we are guilty of cherry-picking. We reject this. Our report is a cornucopia of detailed examples presented in as full a context as possible. President Mills’s answer, however, consists of a few broad-brush accusations and a handful of instances where he seems to think he has the better of the argument. 

As he nears the conclusion of his reply, Mills says “time is precious,” and Bowdoin “probably will not” take that time to “respond, challenge, or debunk everything contained in this report.” Indeed we wouldn’t expect a college to respond to “everything,” but we might reasonably expect Bowdoin to respond to the main things and to attend to the actual substance of the report. 

President Mills ends with a series of presidential affirmations about what “we stand for at Bowdoin.” In writing the report, we read all of President Mills’s speeches and we very much recognize the oratorical mode of these last lines. They summon an attractive vision of the college that is meant to sweep away all doubts. That’s a vision that we tried hard to capture in the report and we take President Mills’s restatement of it here as entirely appropriate. He tells us that:

We are committed to building and supporting a student body that is representative of America and the world.

We are committed to providing opportunity to those previously excluded.

We are also committed to preparing our students to become global citizens in a global economy and for careers that call for critical thinking, judgment, and principled leadership.

We’ve documented these commitments in the report. What we have also done, however, is something President Mills leaves unsaid. We have traced the consequences of these commitments through the curriculum and the life of the college. 

That tracing of consequences gets a final twist by President Mills. In the next to last paragraph he declares that “it is very difficult to take seriously a vindictive effort such as this intended to harm and discredit this historic college in order to satisfy a personal agenda and retrieve a bygone era.”  This is as mistaken in spirit as it is in substance. We have fastidiously documented Bowdoin in its own words. We were not moved by vindictiveness, a desire to discredit, or an urge to retrieve a bygone era. We sought to capture a present reality out of concern for the future. Bowdoin would do well to embody the spirit of the liberal arts it extols and engage our constructive criticism.

This article originally appeared on the Bowdoin Orient website.

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