05 Apr 2013

“What Does Bowdoin Teach?”

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Bowdoin’s Art Museum

Back in the 1960s, Bowdoin’s College Bowl team mopped up on the television contest show whose questions focused on academic knowledge. I thought seriously of going there, but took Yale’s offer instead simply because the larger university offered an even greater selection of course offerings.

Bowdoin is still generally regarded highly. In fact, it is ranked sixth in liberal arts by U.S. News & World Report. But a new study by the National Association of Scholars, released on Wednesday, contends that Bowdoin has become an instrument for partisan indoctrination with Progressive ideology.

Bowdoin boasts of training its students in critical thinking. The NAS study concludes:

[Allegedly] Bowdoin’s emphasis [is] on “critical thinking,” but the real… emphasis [is] on politics. Politics is enthroned at Bowdoin where Reason once reigned. Like all usurpers, this one presents itself as the legitimate heir of the old order. Bowdoin manages this substitution by claiming that Reason all along was political and that “truth claims,” seen accurately through the lens of “critical thinking,” are only assertions of self-interest by the powerful. Since everything was politics anyway, why not promote the politics you prefer? This is the short route to replacing open-minded liberal education with political activism centered on diversity, multiculturalism, same-sex marriage, sustainability, etc.

So, despite Bowdoin’s lack of cohesive intellectual order, it is a “whole” and can be examined as something that possesses organic unity. In that light, our guiding questions were: What kinds of knowledge does Bowdoin emphasize or prize? What does it want all Bowdoin students to learn? What does it want all Bowdoin faculty members to teach? What intellectual habits and attitudes does it cultivate? What understanding of the unity of knowledge does it prompt students to recognize? What divisions of knowledge? What abiding perplexities and matters for lifelong study? What moral yearnings does it plant in the souls of students? How does it urge students to comprehend the self, and what qualities does it uphold as worthy of pursuit? What qualities as better restrained or overcome? How should we treat other people? What obligations do we have as citizens? What are our obligations of stewardship to the achievements of past generations? What are our obligations to the generations to come? What combination of knowledge and character represents an ideal towards which students should strive? What is the good life? What is the good society?

Bowdoin does not spend much time debating possible answers. Rather, it has settled doctrine that informs students what sorts of knowledge, habits, dispositions, and aspirations are desirable. What does Bowdoin want all students to learn? The importance of diversity, respect for “difference,” sustainability, the social construction of gender, the need to obtain “consent,” the common good, world citizenship, and critical thinking. The answers embedded in these terms are not, as we have noted, arrived at by careful weighing of arguments and evidence. The general procedure has been for the college president to announce a “commitment,” such as President Mills’s announcement in 2007 that he had signed the “College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment,” or the College’s 2009 release of its “Carbon Neutrality Implementation Plan.” The same procedures underlie Bowdoin’s creation of the Studies programs, its commitment to minority student recruitment, and its determination to increase the number of minority and women faculty members.

All of these decisions may well have captured the prevailing views of Bowdoin faculty members and students. They might well have, therefore, prevailed in open debate. But as far as we can tell, there was no meaningful debate. Without hesitation, Bowdoin skips to certainties on some of the most contentious issues of our time. What most should be subject to debate never is.
When critical thinking is most necessary, it is most absent. What happens at the level of college policy is reflected at the level of college culture. When Bowdoin speaks of the “common good,” when it promotes “diversity” and “inclusivity” and apotheosizes “difference,” it is similarly by-passing debate on the idea s that are at the center of the great debates in America today. Rather than give these debates a respectful and full hearing, the college pre-empts them with closed-minded orthodoxies.

Of course, not only Bowdoin practices this same kind of one-sided, ideological indoctrination. Yale certainly does, as well –to one degree or another– as every other elite university and college in America.

2 Feedbacks on "“What Does Bowdoin Teach?”"

Soren Kierkegaard

I visited Bowdoin a few years back and was struck by the stuffed polar bear in the lobby of the athletics building. I seem to recall it having been shot about the turn of the century by a Bowdoin alum. I wonder if it remains, or if it’s been purged in the name of all things proper and just. One may only hope an institution such as the Party of the Right may be hiding behind the curtains ready to take back that frozen tundra of liberal thought.

Soren Kierkegaard

From the school’s history web page:


The College adopts the polar bear as its mascot. Five years later, Donald MacMillan presented the school with a stuffed and mounted adult polar bear that he captured in Northern Greenland in 1916. In presenting the bear to the college, he proclaimed, “May his spirit be the Guardian Spirit not only of Bowdoin Athletics, but of every Bowdoin man [and woman].”



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