What Happens Today at a Liberal Arts College?

Today the National Association of Scholars is releasing the results of its long, in-depth study of Bowdoin College, “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.”

Among the findings: Bowdoin, in a retreat from its past, stresses global citizenship (with declining emphasis and on and concern for the United States). Multi-culturalism, diversity and emphasis on race and gender pervade the curriculum and campus life. Openness and critical thinking are officially preached, but many campus core tenets cannot be challenged in the face of the college’s prevailing orthodoxy, and those who might challenge (conservatives) are virtually gone from the campus–only 4 or 5 of the 186 faculty could be listed as conservative, and 100 percent of faculty donations in the 2012 presidential  election went to Barack Obama.

The study of Bowdoin was triggered by happenstance–a golf game that included Wall Streeter Thomas Klingenstein and Bowdoin president Barry Mills. As a result of the disturbing conversation at that game, Klingenstein decided to fund the NAS study of the college.

Here are excerpts from the preface to the report:


The Evidence of Things Unnoticed

By Peter Wood, NAS President

Two Bowdoin goals–global citizenship and openness–actually push against each other. Openness requires skepticism and a sincere willingness to look for hidden assumptions, but Bowdoin’s commitment to global citizenship requires a commitment to diversity (in its current understanding, the notion that each of us is defined in the most meaningful ways by the group to which we belong) and to the racial preferences that follow from diversity; to multiculturalism (all cultures are equal); to the idea that gender and social norms are all simply social constructs (an assumption that justifies virtually unlimited government intervention necessary to achieve the global citizen’s understanding of sexual justice); and to “sustainability” (which assumes that free market economic systems, and the materialistic, bourgeois values that drive them, are destroying the planet).

These are notions not meaningfully “open to debate” at Bowdoin; indeed, a commitment to global citizenship requires that they not be open to debate. Students are encouraged to “think critically” about anything that threatens the college’s dogmas on diversity, multiculturalism, gender, and sustainability, etc., but, for the most part, not to think critically about those dogmas themselves. That is the problem: such contradictions go unnoticed. And they go unnoticed because at Bowdoin, and places like it, there are precious few people who can point them out.

For instance, the 2012-2013 Bowdoin College Catalogue explains:

Courses in Gender and Women’s Studies investigate the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender and its meaning across cultures and historic periods. Gender construction is explored as an institutionalized means of structuring inequality and dominance.

Here Bowdoin flatly announces that gender is a social construct, the sole purpose of which is to subjugate women. Is gender, according to this view, entirely a social construct? “In light of the social construction of gender” seems to say so, and at the very least it forecloses any interest in other possibilities, such as biology. Individual courses on gender at Bowdoin are built on these assumptions, as is almost all public discussion of the matter.

The ‘Studies’ Movement

What happened with women’s studies began earlier. The transformation of the liberal arts at Bowdoin into a platform for political advocacy started with Afro-American studies (since renamed Africana studies­). According to the minutes of Bowdoin’s Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee, Afro-American studies were conceived to create slots for black faculty members who could assist black students. A 1971 revision expanded on the idea that the program could promote social change while assisting black students. It extolled the program’s potential to promote a “process of re-socialization and socialization of Americans” and fulfill “a psychological need on the part of Black students.”

What started in Afro-American studies set in motion the larger “studies” movement, which now includes gay and lesbian studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, and environmental studies. Courses listed in the studies programs now comprise approximately 18 percent of the curriculum, but that is the tip of the iceberg. The ideology that characterizes these programs has seeped into many courses in other departments. Multiculturalism is also heavily programmed into the extracurricular schedule with events such as the spring 2012 “Beyond the Bowdoin Hello: Ask, Listen, Engage,” inaugurated to spur a wider “dialogue on issues of identity and diversity, both in the classroom and in our wider community.” This event stretched over many days and enjoyed a broad campus co-sponsorship.

One way to get a sense of the nature and influence of the studies programs is to take a glance at one of Bowdoin’s few academic requirements, “First-Year Seminars.” These courses are designed to teach writing and critical thinking skills, and to provide a gateway to the academic departments. Every student must take one of 36 courses. Some of these are solid, but others include “Sexual Life of Colonialism,” “Modern Western Prostitutes,” “Native American Stereotypes,’ “The Art of the Deal,” and “Queer Gardens”(struck from the list for lack of student interest).

A Lack of Openness

It is very difficult to maintain an environment of openness without frequent exposure to competing ideas. Progressive ideas are not likely to be subjected to serious challenge unless there are conservatives around. (The reverse would be just as true.) Without conservatives the not-noticing problem sets in. We estimate that four or five out of approximately 182 full-time faculty members might be described as politically conservative and a Bowdoin Orient article was titled “100% of Faculty Donations Go to Obama.” Bowdoin doesn’t dispute that the imbalance is extreme; instead it argues that its liberal faculty faithfully represents many views, including conservative ones. President Mills and others say that the views of conservatives are represented on campus. For example, in his 2005 baccalaureate address, he unconditionally denied that Bowdoin suffered from liberal bias or intellectual homogeneity: “There is not a single point of view at Bowdoin. There are many. “

In 2004, Prof. Henry Laurence went even further, calling it “intellectually bankrupt, professionally insulting and, fortunately, wildly inaccurate” to say that Bowdoin’s political homogeneity threatens the integrity of its curriculum. Most of us can do a pretty good job of summarizing views other than our own, though giving a fair-minded account of views that we think are profoundly mistaken can be quite difficult. Would you want to have a Marxist as your sole source of information on the stock market? A passionate atheist your sole source of information on religion?
We need not, however, speculate about the claim that Bowdoin liberals do a perfectly adequate job in covering conservative views. The evidence shows plainly that they do not. Patrick Rael of the history department referred to conservative Bowdoin students who had advocated for an “Academic Bill of Rights” as “McCarthyite…anti-democratic…and Far Right.” Prof. Laurence went on to declare that having “a political imbalance [among faculty] was no more significant than having an imbalance between Red Sox and Yankee fans.”

Not Much Interest in the West

Openness (and more inclusively “critical thinking”) requires a commitment to the West. The term “critical thinking” refers to a human capacity, but it is a capacity that developed into a disciplined approach to ideas in a specific historical context and one that remains characteristic of the West. A commitment to critical thinking is a commitment to a Western mode of rational inquiry, regardless of whether this commitment is acknowledged. Moreover, the assumptions and values of Bowdoin students have been formed by the Western tradition. Freeing students from the shackles of their own thought requires study of the West, as well, of course, as the non-West.

But official Bowdoin on the whole shows little interest in the West. In part, this is because focusing on the West risks elevating the West over other cultures. That, in turn, works against the all-cultures-are-equal belief that is part of the quest for the cosmopolitan outlook of global citizenship.

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. Around campus “American exceptionalism” is a term of derision; a student who expresses such views in a tone other than mockery is reflexively attacked. In place of the traditional focus on the West at Bowdoin, the emphasis today tends to be on diversity and multiculturalism, which are embedded in a narrative in which the United States conspicuously and perennially falls short of its ideals. Students too often learn to concentrate their critical doubts on what they come to see as America’s false promises, and at the same time join their enthusiasm to an alternative vision in which “citizenship” is reconstructed as loyalty to the norms of racial justice, gender equity, multi-culturalism, etc.


Editor’s note: For more on Bowdoin, see KC Johnson’s piece on history instruction there. 


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

3 thoughts on “What Happens Today at a Liberal Arts College?

  1. One need not believe that NAS’ claim needs to be that there are “No” courses on Western History/Philosophy to think that Bowdoin’s curriculum could/should disappoint a significant segment of those who care about a rigorous liberal arts education. Keeping it “pseudo quantitatively”, I am interested in the ratio of “Identity/Studies” courses to the course in Western though. I am interested in seeng how this ratio has trended (I assume, grown) over the last 25 years. I am also interested in which of the two “categories” is more likely to find its offerings general requirements as opposed to simply electives. And of course, I would love to see an objective assessment of the level of difficulty each type of course presents.

  2. Bowdoin has not forgotten about Chamberlain or American history. He is still very much celebrated and there are still multitudes of courses on Western history and philosophy. This study claims they couldn’t find any, but unfortunately they were looking in the wrong department. Many of the facts this study claims are over-exaggerated and some are simply incorrect (like the claim about forgoing American history). The NAS is very biased against liberal arts colleges simply because they decide to teach about identity, something that is very important to learn about in modern society. If you read other NAS articles or studies, you will see just how deep their bias goes. Then it is up to you whether or not to believe a study that was started when a man’s ego was hurt in a golf anecdote.

  3. Is this the same college at which Maj-General Joshua Chamberlain once taught and of which he was President?? The Chamberlain who led the 20th Maine Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg? Who was selected by Gen. Grant to receive the Confederate surrender at Appomattox and who called the Union troops to attention and to render the hand salute to their former foes? This Bowdoin College is his Bowdoin College? Incredible that in such a short time his legacy could be so thoroughly erased.

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