No Nine Irons, Just Facts

Peter Wood

Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a second article about NAS. The article, "National Association of Scholars Joins Investor in Teeing Up a Critique of Bowdoin," mocks NAS's new study of the liberal education at Bowdoin College. Peter Wood responded to the article yesterday with this comment on The Chronicle’s site.

My thanks to Peter Schmidt for his attention to the Bowdoin Project and his interesting account of how it came to be.  Anyone interested in a fuller explanation of the origins of our study can find it on the National Association of Scholars website.

The image of our study as “the verbal equivalent of a beating with a nine iron” is pretty memorable. In my case, I’ve only once ventured out on a golf course and, while I enjoyed the sky, the trees, and the relative solitude, I wasn’t moved to attack anyone. The Bowdoin study, partly funded by Mr. Klingenstein, began with the understanding that the National Association of Scholars would pursue an in-depth study of what the college teaches, inside and outside its course offerings. We aimed at thoroughness and our tagline for everything we did was “dry as dust.” That is to say, we kept our focus squarely on the factual record and we crawled through as much of the documentary record of the college as we could in eighteen months.

Fascinating as President Barry Mills must be, I instructed my research assistant to leave him out of the picture except when he unavoidably stepped into something we were working on. What did we work on? The history of the college, back to its founding in 1794.  The statistical profile of the college from its various IPEDS and Common Data Set filings. The “key concepts” that dominate the college’s official statements about itself and also much of the minuted discussion of policy matters. The shape of the curriculum. The student culture. Faculty concerns.

In other words, the usual sorts of things that anyone interested in the life of a college would look at. What made this different from a reaccreditation study or a college’s self-written history was our determination to capture as fully as possible what an elite liberal arts college actually teaches. How well we accomplished this remains for others to judge, but we did not stint in our effort.  The draft report runs 500 pages and our task now is to condense it to readable length.

Several pieces of that draft are now posted on the NAS website. Anyone who wanted to form a first-hand opinion of our serious methods and the sober tone of our exposition can read these pieces in advance of the report as a whole, which will be released April 3. We welcome comments.

Mr. Klingenstein obtained no made-to-order research for his financial support. He has urged us, as a final step, to extract from the body of the report, some of the key findings to highlight in the introduction. I expect to do that, but highlighting key findings seems a long way off from hoisting a nine iron to thrash a college president. I will, however, try in the introduction to assess his contributions--something that the report itself does not do.

For what it is worth, President Mills is a very successful and popular college president. Nothing in our report gainsays that. We are concerned with the quality of education that Bowdoin provides. To some extent a college president bears responsibility for the defects as well as praise for the excellence of a college’s programs, academic and otherwise. But our focus is on Bowdoin as a college that exemplifies current trends in liberal arts education, not Bowdoin as the shadow of one man.

Peter Wood
National Association of Scholars

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