There’s nothing quite like What Does Bowdoin Teach?, the report recently issued by the National Association of Scholars that details the sad state of liberal-arts education at the famous old college in Maine. Bowdoin, however, is presented as the stand-in for the whole category of highly selective old-line colleges that in recent decades have abandoned rigorous education in favor of winning over students to a progressive worldview. Lots of people, of course, have described and complained about this swap. But the NAS report is something brand new. No one until now has exposed the politicization of higher education in this kind of breadth and depth — by examining how it plays out at a single college. Nor has anyone before authors Peter Wood and Michael Toscano thought to mine a college’s own archives to substantiate charges of bias. With some thoughtful help from Wood and Toscano, Bowdoin virtually indicts itself.
Some fine overviews of the report have been published, yet there’s no substitute for diving in. The Bowdoin report is more like a good book than a dry memo, so reading bits and pieces is easy and fun. No summary can convey the deadpan but devastating analysis that illuminates the seemingly endless line of campus horror-stories on offer here. Wood and Toscano show a Bowdoin at war with itself: unwilling to uphold standards, yet loath to acknowledge their decline; incapable of affirming the need for shared knowledge of fundamentals, yet eager to modify the details of student behavior in accordance with a quasi-religious suite of “sustainable” practices; and, ultimately, forging ideological fetters from its very professions of tolerance.
Did I mention the sex? The sex sections of the preface and Chapter 5 (Student Culture) are clearly going to draw attention.
Beyond the preface, which nicely summarizes the report and provides plenty of examples and analysis, I’d especially recommend pages 172–190 on “Sustainability” and Chapter 3 (Academic Instruction).
You really have to read the sustainability section to get a feel for just how pervasively this construct has allowed politicization (and what amounts to a secular religion) to creep into the minutiae of student life. The end of this section shows the authors’ analysis at its best.
Chapter 3, on academic instruction, is a gem of detective work. Claims by conservatives that affirmative action has compromised standards and perhaps even led to grade inflation have been dismissed with outrage in the past. Here Wood and Toscano dredge up faculty minutes that show those most in a position to know raising essentially the same complaints. The effect is devastating.
This is followed by more deadpan skewering of the thoroughly ideological “studies” programs that set the tone for education at Bowdoin. The authors allow the evidence to speak for itself, then intervene to powerful effect. Bowdoin’s troubles are convincingly shown to be the outcome of fateful choices made in the late 1960s — knowing rejections of the fundamental principles of liberal education which clearly continue to trouble the college’s leaders to this day.
The Bowdoin report: one of a kind, and well worth your time.