‘What Does Bowdoin Teach?’
Excerpts of Reactions to the NAS Report

Peter Berkowitz, Real Clear Politics:    

body of the report demonstrates that left-leaning ideology permeates the
college; the report’s preface explains the harm this does to students and the
nation.The problem is not that Bowdoin teaches contemporary progressivism —
that is, the idea that government’s chief aims include securing substantial
social and economic equality and emancipating individuals from structures of
oppression, ideological and spiritual as well as material and institutional.
That is a view about freedom and equality with deep roots in the American
political tradition.

proclaims its devotion to liberal education and the virtues of open-mindedness,
critical thinking, and freedom on which it depends. But the college
reinterprets these virtues to serve partisan ends. The process by which Bowdoin
transforms open-mindedness into closed-mindedness, critical thinking into
dogmatic apologetics, and freedom into anarchy is manifold.

permits students to graduate without taking a course on, among other vital
subjects, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the American founding; offers
few survey courses but many highly specialized topical courses; and provides
little useful faculty advising.

baleful lesson (of a weak distribution requirement)is that there is no rhyme or
reason to liberal education other than the reinforcement of progressive
opinions, and that by the time they have arrived in college students have
already learned all they need to know about the fundamentals of America and
Western civilization.

addition, Bowdoin devotes considerable resources to, and reserves a prominent
place in the curriculum for, gender studies and women’s studies, Africana
studies, gay and lesbian studies, Asian studies, Latin America studies, and
environmental studies. These, according to the report, “stand apart because
they are the only programs (or departments) at Bowdoin that were founded to
advance political goals.”

only are they openly devoted to advocacy, these “studies” programs also
typically rest on the all-too-predictable assumption (which they insulate from
intellectual challenge) that identity is socially constructed by the dominant
group — in the case of America and the West, white men — to subjugate
minorities and women.


Editorial, Bowdoin Orient student newspaper:

“The Bowdoin Project” insults the
intelligence of Bowdoin students, and misrepresents the nature of a liberal
arts education. The best response to the report is to regard it with the
critical acuity that Bowdoin has taught us.


In that spirit, we admit that there is truth
to a number of the report’s arguments. Intellectual diversity is a real issue
on campus, as it is at many like institutions. The vast majority of students
and professors identify as liberal, which understandably limits the audience
for conservative ideas both in and out of the classroom. Some departments have
very few survey courses, and many classes focus on esoteric and narrow topics.
But that doesn’t mean the College doesn’t teach us anything of worth, as the
NAS concludes…


While Mr. Klingenstein has said he is in
favor of a meritocratic approach to diversity that fosters “inclusion,” any
college that adopted his philosophy in its admissions policies would likely
resemble the homogenous Bowdoin of decades past….


The Bowdoin Project is an opportunity for our
community to address the very real problems that do exist on campus and engage
in a discussion of how the College can improve. The conclusions of the NAS
should not dictate how Bowdoin addresses its academic shortcomings…


, Phi Beta Cons:

Much of what universities
like Bowdoin do these days is not illegal but merely foolish; some of it
is foolish and possibly illegal; and some of it is not only definitely
foolish but also definitely illegal. In the latter category I would place
making any faculty hiring decisions on the basis of race, ethnicity, and
sex. So see the discussion of “Faculty Recruitment” in Peter Wood’s
preface and of “Faculty Diversity” in the report itself, and my discussion of
the legal distinctions between weighing “diversity” in student admissions
versus faculty hiring


Bowdoin College, Official Response:

We will review the report because we encourage open discourse on the
effectiveness of American higher education and because we support academic
freedom, which is the essence of a liberal arts institution.

Bowdoin will continue to assess its effectiveness by relying on many
factors to evaluate our academic and residential life programs, including the
accomplishments of students, faculty, and staff, and the achievements, loyalty,
and support of alumni. The College will also look to the informed judgment of
foundations, corporations, and other outside donors that are well versed in
assessing the quality and efficacy of the institutions they support, and we
will depend on the rigorous decennial reaccreditation process. Collectively,
these and other internal measures provide us with the qualitative and
quantitative means to consider carefully how we are doing currently and what we
must do to prepare for the future.

We are proud of our students and our commitment to build and support a
community that resembles America and the world. We are proud of our faculty who
represent intellectual rigor across the disciplines and who are both excellent
teachers and engaged scholars. We are also proud of our alumni who are leaders
in all walks of life. A Bowdoin education trains young men and women of varied
backgrounds to think critically, solve complex problems, apply sound judgment,
embrace lifelong learning, and make principled decisions in support of the
common good. This is both our mission and our record.


John K. Wilson, Academe Blog:      

Obviously, taking one of the most
liberal hippy-dippy colleges in the country and turning it into the embodiment
of all colleges makes for an easy argument. But what’s remarkable is how badly
the NAS fails in its attack on Bowdoin (
read Bowdoin’s
response here

The NAS is so desperate to attack
Bowdoin that one finds it scouring the descriptions of departments, looking for
any words it finds appalling, such as this: “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.”

The NAS seems to call for the total
abolition of gender studies, black studies, gay and lesbian studies, Latin
American studies, and all other studies programs that might be linked to
identity: “Courses listed in the studies programs now comprise approximately 18
percent of the curriculum, but that is the tip of the iceberg. Eighteen percent
of the curriculum may seem a small figure, but not if the proper percent is
zero.” Is the proper percent zero? That appears to be what the NAS thinks, but
it’s afraid to actually make an argument for wiping out entire fields of study
and firing their faculty for purely political reasons. All the NAS can do is
make ridiculous claims such as, “‘Diversity’ is a disguised form of racism.”

Most people, including most
conservatives, will read this report and think to themselves, “I wish I could
be a student at Bowdoin. I wish I could be a professor at Bowdoin.” The
incredible resources, small classes, and intellectual environment would strike
anyone as a blessing, unless you viewed it purely as a question of whether your
ideological position was the winner among most students and faculty.

In the final paragraph of its
report, the NAS writes: What does Bowdoin not teach? Intellectual modesty.
Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad
framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A
course on Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course
on the American Revolution. The history of Western civilization from classical
times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public
speaking. Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical
thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from
triviality. Wisdom. Culture.

This incoherent mish-mash of mostly
mindless complaints embodies what’s wrong with the NAS report. When
“intellectual modesty” (whatever the hell that means) is your top priority, it
shows how little substance the NAS is standing on. Of course, Bowdoin does
promote critical thinking, virtue, wisdom, and culture, but because it’s not a
narrow conservative definition of these ideas, the NAS can’t see anything good
about the college.


Linda Chavez, Corson Web Site:

Bowdoin requires all freshmen to
take a first-year seminar, which is supposed to provide the gateway to the
“critical thinking” skills the college purports to value. Among the
35 courses from which students must pick, easily half are either frivolous or,
worse, tendentious exercises in identity politics. The titles alone tell the
story: “Fan Fiction and Cult Classics,” “Beyond Pocahontas:
Native American Stereotypes,” “Racism,” “Fictions of Freedom,”
“Sexual Life of Colonialism,” “Prostitutes in Modern Western
Culture” and “Queer Gardens,” to name a few. The latter course
“examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal
identities find expression in specific garden spaces.” One can only infer
that the college deems such knowledge a necessary building block to every
student’s intellectual development.

Wood and Toscano do more than
catalogue the obvious excesses of the modern academy, however. Wood brings his
training as an anthropologist to the examination of campus life and culture,
painstakingly researching the college’s records, including minutes of academic
meetings, to reveal how Bowdoin’s mission changed over the past 40 years. In a
series of appendices and within the actual report, the authors document the
decision-making process that has transformed Bowdoin into the school it is

The study also looks at the
college’s implicit promotion of sexual promiscuity and the “hook-up”
culture among students, which begins during first-year orientation. A play
called “Speak About It,” which all incoming students must attend,
includes what its authors say are autobiographical sketches from current and
former Bowdoin students. The play depicts graphic on-stage sexual encounters
between heterosexual and gay couples — complete with simulated orgasms.
Paradoxically, the Bowdoin community also seems obsessed with preventing sexual
assault, which administrators seem to believe is rampant on campus despite the
low incidence of reporting alleged attacks.

If Bowdoin were unique in its
abandonment of traditional liberal education, this study might be of no more
than passing interest. What the authors found at Bowdoin, however, exists to
some degree at many if not most elite colleges and universities. This study
deserves widespread dissemination and discussion — first among Bowdoin’s
alumni, donors and the parents of current and potential students. But anyone
interested in the future of higher education in America should take note.

Our colleges and universities shape
the next generation of leaders and citizens, for better or worse. And the
country’s most elite schools will influence disproportionately who we become as
a nation and a people in the future. What has happened to Bowdoin College
should matter to all of us.


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