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Two Islands at Bowdoin



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Jean Yarbrough, a conservative, and one of Bowdoin’s finest professors (profiled here), has offered the first truly serious response to “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” the critical report on Bowdoin recently published by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). (The reaction to date by Bowdoin’s President Barry Mills has been far less thoughtful and substantial.) Yarbrough criticizes the NAS report for downplaying some of the more traditional courses taught at Bowdoin, yet goes on to say that “much of what the NAS report describes is, I am sorry to say, spot on.”

The Bowdoin report does acknowledge the existence of a few conservative professors like Yarbrough at Bowdoin, and does identify the government department as an exception to the larger and more disturbing trends it identifies at the school. Yet it’s perfectly fair to say that the report could have done more to highlight the shrinking strongholds of traditionalism at Bowdoin.

That said, one of the most interesting things about the Bowdoin Report is that it chronicles what you might call a “reverse island” effect. Back in the late 60s and 70s, when the big changes at Bowdoin began, courses in ethnic or gender studies were like tiny islands in a sea of traditionalism. In those days, the ideologically-based “studies” programs were seen by many as necessary concessions to the emerging multiculturalist zeitgeist. Although it was recognized that the founding principles of these new fields were at odds with the fundamental assumptions of liberal education, few imagined that the character of Bowdoin itself could be endangered by what appeared to be only limited changes. Those changes were mere islands on the edges of Bowdoin’s main currents.

Over time, however, the “studies” departments not only multiplied, but their guiding assumptions spread to other departments. Today the politicized “studies” programs embody the leading ideas of Bowdoin as a whole, as courses in traditional departments increasingly mimic what we find in their more overtly ideological counterparts. (A process facilitated by the use of cross-listing to build up offerings in the “studies” departments.) A few traditionalists like Yarbrough remain, and the government department is still a stronghold of classic approaches to liberal learning. Yet what used to be the central thrust of Bowdoin’s educational approach has been reduced to outlier status in a world now governed by the ethos of the multiculturalist “studies” programs. Now traditionalists live on an island. It’s a process we can see at many colleges besides Bowdoin.

So while it’s fair to say that the Bowdoin report might have done more to highlight the traditionalist redoubts that survive at Bowdoin, the great contribution of the report is to trace the rise of the competing multiculturalist approach from marginal and controversial outlier status to effective dominance in the school as a whole.



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