Queer Gardens, Pocahontas, and Prostitutes
A new report tracks the intellectual disarray at a pricey liberal-arts college.

Bowdoin College campus


Eliana Johnson

What Does Bowdoin Teach? — a report released today by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) — is the most comprehensive assessment of the academic culture, customs, and values of a college conducted to date. It is a devastating appraisal. The study, authored by NAS president and former Boston University professor and administrator Peter Wood, is the product of 18 months of research and is primarily devoted to answering the question it poses.

As Isaiah Berlin might have said, Bowdoin teaches many small things but few big things. Its academic departments and the courses they offer are, for the most part, narrowly specialized. In classes, questions of first principle are routinely settled in advance. As a result, the report finds, students have little chance of receiving a bona fide liberal-arts education or of learning to think critically.


A social anthropologist by training, Wood refers to his study as a “full-fledged ethnography.” Bowdoin is, he suspects, a representative example of the education on offer at liberal-arts colleges across the country. The report documents an increasingly fractured academy that has no common curriculum and in which so-called identity studies take priority over a study of the West. It highlights, for example, the 36 freshmen seminars offered at Bowdoin in the fall of 2012. They are designed to teach writing and critical-thinking skills and to introduce students to the various academic departments. Some of the subjects are unsurprising: The Korean War, Great Issues in Science, Political Leadership. Others seem less conducive to critical thinking and fruitful classroom discussion: Queer Gardens, Beyond Pocahontas: Native American Stereotypes; Sexual Life of Colonialism; Modern Western Prostitutes.

Queer Gardens, an exploration of the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and of “the link between gardens and transgression,” simply “does not teach critical thinking as well as Plato’s Republic,” the report notes; nor does any subject that has “no canon of works that embody exemplary achievement in the difficult dialogic task of critical thinking.”

The freshmen seminars, and Queer Gardens in particular, illustrate the increasing specialization of academia, which Wood documents statistically. Bowdoin today teaches far fewer survey courses than it did in the 1964–65 academic year, used for the purposes of comparison. As a result, students wind up in courses that presume they have obtained general knowledge in the subject area and mastered basic ideas. The school does not offer a single course in American military, political, diplomatic, or intellectual history. 

“What impressed me most about Bowdoin was the sheer intellectual incoherence of the college,” says Wood. “Incoherence means a lot of triviality.” He traces the school’s academic decline to 1969, the year that Bowdoin dispensed with academic requirements aside from those of a student’s major. That decision has reverberated to the present, affecting “everything about the college,” he argues. It has deprived students of a common intellectual base, encouraged specialization within academic departments, and facilitated the appointment of faculty members who prioritize research over teaching. 

Bowdoin’s mission statement emphasizes the intrinsic value of a liberal-arts education as well as the importance of that education in fostering critical thinking, openness, tolerance, and magnanimity. But to a large extent, Woods concludes, the courses taught at Bowdoin are inimical to those goals.

In some instances, critical thinking is thwarted because the instructor has answered fundamental questions in advance, long before the first day of class, and thereby foreclosed discussion of important alternatives. The report cites as an example the course catalogue for the 2012–13 academic year, which explains that courses in Bowdoin’s Gender and Women’s Studies Department investigate “the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender” and how gender has been used “as an institutionalized means of structuring inequality and dominance.”

These courses, the authors conclude, prevent any exploration of possible alternative origins of gender differences and block any meaningful debate over the issue. Tom Klingenstein, the chairman of the Claremont Institute, who commissioned and funded the report, says that this approach leads students “to assume that what they are taught is established opinion, that there isn’t any valid alternative, and that only someone morally corrupt or of dubious character could disagree.” In the end, he says, this undermines the school’s efforts to cultivate openness and tolerance. “If you’re not exposed to competing ideas, you’re shortchanged.”