The Bowdoin Debate: It’s On

by Stanley Kurtz

A reply to William F. Buckley’s God and Man At Yale that touted the school’s beautiful chapels, or mentioned a stray course that was a bit more sympathetic to religion or free enterprise than the ones Buckley discussed wouldn’t be much of a reply. Buckley’s scathing and systematic critique of Yale was based on extensive evidence, was filled with penetrating analysis, and was grounded in a coherent philosophy of education that pointedly challenged Yale’s reigning orthodoxies.

Yet Bowdoin College President Barry Mills has chosen to deal with “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” the report recently released by the National Association of Scholars on the troubled state of education at his school, by focusing on minutiae and irrelevancies, and by avoiding all the big questions. Mills’ reply isn’t even persuasive on the side-issues he raises. But the real problem is that he never comes to terms with the fundamental challenges of evidence, analysis, and philosophy posed by the Bowdoin Report.

The report’s authors, Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, have ably replied to Mills’ first salvo. But I want to emphasize the points they raise at the beginning and end of their piece. Wood and Toscano rightly note that Mills hasn’t begun to respond to the larger issues they’ve raised. If anything, Mills appears to be setting himself up to claim that his job is done and that he needn’t reply to what counts.

Here, in the words of Wood and Toscano, is what remains to be addressed:

Our larger disappointment, however, is that President Mills leaves unaddressed the central themes of the report: unnoticed bias against views that differ from prevailing progressive ideas; curricular incoherence which results from a vision of the students as autonomous consumers, compounded by an ever-increasing narrowness of faculty specialization; the contradictions between the college’s vaunted commitments to openness and critical thinking, on the one hand, and its overriding ideological commitments, on the other; the displacement of intellectual standards by appeals to social justice; the college’s willingness to flatter students to the point of compromising educational desiderata; the erosion of intellectual community and its gradual replacement by popular enthusiasms; and the college’s retreat from positive efforts to foster self-restraint and other qualities of good character that are intrinsic to liberal arts education. On each and every one of these, President Mills is silent.

Let’s hope that silence is broken. Until then, Mills’ reply is little more than an device for avoiding the issues at play in this important debate.

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