Notes on Bowdoin’s Curriculum

Prompted by the NAS’ intriguing–and commendable–decision to use Bowdoin as a case study to explore the liberal arts experience, I took a look last week at the staffing decisions in Bowdoin’s history department. Three unusual patterns emerged: (1) a seemingly disproportionate emphasis on environmental and African history; (2) an inconsistent commitment to scholarship as a requirement for promotion and/or tenure; and (3) a preference for narrowness (history of diet, history of science, two environmental historians of the Pacific coast) in U.S. history, all while running away from any approaches that could be deemed “traditional.”

So how do these staffing decisions translate into curricular choices?

First, two caveats: (1) As would be expected from a liberal arts college of Bowdoin’s quality (and expense), the department employs several highly-regarded teachers; and while a strong case can be made at a macro level that the department poorly serves its students by exposing them to an imbalanced curriculum, there’s no question that, at a micro level, the department’s professors seem to care deeply for the individual students that they teach.

(2) The NAS study, as I noted last week, was triggered by recollections of an exchange between Bowdoin president Barry Mills and New York financier Thomas Klingenstein. Given that Mills appears to have exaggerated Klingenstein’s comments (in Mills’ telling, Klingenstein was a rude boor who scarcely concealed his racism), Klingenstein penned a post in which he amplified his views. He chastised the History department for preferring thematic over chronological surveys, though I see little wrong with thematic surveys, especially for high-quality students. That said, and as Klingenstein discovered when he looked through Bowdoin’s offerings, when departments offer only certain types of thematic U.S. surveys (for instance, those geared around the race/class/gender trinity, along with, in Bowdoin ‘s case, environmental history), a thematic approach is problematic.

Especially in its U.S. history offerings, Bowdoin’s history department confirms Klingenstein’s general curricular concerns more than Mills’ inclination to defend the status quo.

Bowdoin requires History majors to complete 10 courses, a pretty typical course load; majors must concentrate in one region, from which they can take no more than six courses. In fall 2011, however, the department made a curious change. Heretofore, all Bowdoin History majors will have to take at least four courses in non-Western (Latin American, African, or Asian) history. That’s up from three previously. At the same time, the department doesn’t require students who concentrate in U.S. history to take even one course in European history. Or, in the alternative, European history concentrators must take the four non-Western classes, but can graduate without enrolling in a single offering in U.S. history.

The departmental website offers no explanation for this “40% rule” for non-European/U.S. classes; or why the department has such a . . . robust . . . non-Western mandate while allowing students to ignore European history altogether. Nor does an examination of the Bowdoin course catalog provide any insights on the question—the department has a fairly wide array of European history classes, ranging from general surveys (the long 19th century), to country-specific courses (Russia, Britain).

But Mark Bauerlein’s post below contains a potential clue of the department’s reasoning. Bauerlein analyzed a recent interview with former University of Virginia vice president for diversity and equity William Harvey, who fumed, “A Western European framework obviously completely ignores the contributions of people of color.” Harvey would (presumably) have no problem with the Bowdoin arrangement, except perhaps to complain that the college bothers to offer any European history courses at all.

Its hiring patterns allow Bowdoin to run U.S. history classes that many comparable institutions might not feature. For instance, the fall 2011 roster includes offerings in the history of the American West (taught by one of the department’s two specialists in the environmental history of the Pacific coast) and in science in 20th century U.S. society (taught by the department’s historian of science). The spring 2011 roster included courses in the history of California, a state further from Maine than any state in the continental U.S. (taught by one of the department’s two specialists in the environmental history of the Pacific coast) and in environment and culture in North American history (taught by the department’s other specialist in the environmental history of the Pacific coast). To supplement its offerings, the department also regularly offers courses from faculty in the Africana Studies and the Gender and Women’s Studies programs.

On the other hand, because the department has excluded so many areas in its hiring decisions, Bowdoin either all but avoids many topics (U.S. economic history, U.S. constitutional history) or tailors its U.S. offerings in “traditional” topics through the lens of its mostly “non-traditional” faculty. For instance, its class on the Cold War (spring 2011), taught by the department’s historian of science, “primarily considers United States politics and culture of the era,” including—according to the course description—a heavy use of film (suggesting that the class emphasis veers more toward culture than politics). Students looking for a U.S. diplomatic history offering can, it seems, go to Colby. Or they can obtain a few scraps about the field from Bowdoin’s class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is taught by the department’s specialist in Jewish women in Britain. Her research focuses on “immigrant acculturation, philanthropy, and child care in the Victorian era.”

There’s little evidence that the department is concerned about the limited array of its U.S. history offerings. For the 2011-2012 academic year, a post-doctoral fellow will teach one course per semester. In a department that over the past three semesters already had offered surveys in both Asian-American and African-American history, as well as numerous other U.S. history courses on people of color (including, for instance, a class entitled “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans”), it wouldn’t seem as if offering classes on additional minority populations would be a prime concern. But the department chose to bring aboard a fellow who could produce a class on the history of Latinos in the United States.

Doubtless Bowdoin’s equivalent of William Harvey was delighted.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Bowdoin’s Curriculum

  1. Fascinating strawman argument on why Bowdoin requires history majors to take non-Western history courses. Rather than asking the Bowdoin history department about these requirements, you have assumed that they were precipitated by a perception that courses in Western history ignore the contributions of people of color.
    There are more plausible explanations for these requirements which you do not address; for example that students are expected to already have a strong foundation in Western history when they apply to Bowdoin but are less likely to have a similar foundation in non-Western history. You additionally take umbrage with the fact that there is no similar requirement for European or US history without consulting the college’s history department; it is likely that this was deemed unnecessary because students took classes in European and US history without being prompted and therefore the college did not see a need to require these courses.
    Commending NAS’ case study is also ridiculous; Bowdoin appears to be the target of a personal vendetta rather than an unbiased examination. It is unlikely that a study funded by a vocal detractor of the liberal arts experience at Bowdoin, conducted by an organization with the express purpose of countering liberal bias in education, and relying on subjective analysis of the perceived culture of the college will paint a fair and accurate portrait of the liberal arts experience at Bowdoin.

  2. Hey I just want to clear up a couple of things. First, Klingenstein’s original article is poorly researched and provides an inaccurate account of the bowdoin curriculum
    (You do a terrible job as well by the way):
    Also, I took the Cold War class that was mentioned in this post. And wow do you make assumptions about something you know nothing about.
    We watched four movies for the entire class. The first was a documentary about the atomic bomb (“The Day After Trinity”). The second was George Clooney’s highly accurate “Good Night and Good Luck.” The third was a documentary on Robert McNamara. And the fourth was German film about oppression in Eastern Germany “The Lives of Others” – William F. Buckley has said that it’s the greatest film he’s ever seen.
    All of those films deal with cultural issues for sure, but are also obviously political. Especially the two documentaries.
    I find it absolutely outrageous that you slandered the subject matter of that course without requesting a course syllabus from the professor.
    In general, I can tell you that the course presented a very comprehensive view of the Cold War and represented many different viewpoints. We read one piece, for example, by a historian who highly praised Ronald Reagan. Though much of the class had issues with the piece, professor Hecht defended it – the author was a highly acclaimed historian and his point of view was well founded in many ways. I could come up with many other examples of this.

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