Professor Yarbrough responds

We have been following the story arising from the NAS report by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano on Bowdoin College. This past weekend I collected relevant links for interested readers here. Since then Bowdoin President Barry Mills has responded here. Wood and Toscano have in turn responded here and the Bowdoin Orient has rounded up responses in an article by Linda Kinstler here.

Yesterday the Bowdoin Orient published a tactful response to the report by our friend Jean Yarbrough. Yarbrough is the Gary M. Pendy Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin. Professor Yarbrough’s response to the report is notable in several respects and certainly the most noteworthy response to the report so far, of interest to all of us who seek to preserve a domain of humane learning for our children and grandchildren.

Folks, you have to know how to read a letter like this. Professor Yarbrough is not only one of Bowdoin’s most distinguished teachers, she loves the school and wants to make it better. She writes from inside the asylum, acutely aware of its deficiencies but wanting to overcome the resistance to being heard as she intends by her audience. The letter is an exercise in diplomacy. It must be read with care to be understood properly. Understood properly, it is devastating.

The letter is eleven paragraphs long. Sitting in the center is paragraph six beginning: “Critics no doubt will object that in resisting the push for diversity I want to return to the good old days when Bowdoin was more white, all male and largely Christian. I do not.” If you read nothing else, please attend to Professor Yarbrough’s words here. This is the heart of what she has to say.

Professor Yarbrough’s letter is in any event worth reading in its entirety on its own moving terms. I am therefore taking the liberty of republishing Professor Yarbrough’s letter verbatim without further comment. Professor Yarbrough writes:

I write in response to the editors’ request for my opinion of the NAS report with regard to the government department and to the report in general.

First, although the NAS study purports to be an “ethnography” of Bowdoin over the past 40-plus years, it fails to provide a comprehensive answer to the question “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” As others have noted, the report makes much of the fact that history does not require (or even offer) a course on the American founding, but that does not mean that Bowdoin students are denied the opportunity to study this subject. As the report finally gets around to acknowledging (footnote 1155), the government department offers a survey of American political thought that treats the founding in depth (the NAS likes survey courses!), and has done so for the last 25 years.

Second, the report calls attention to many of the narrow and/or ideologically charged first year seminars on offer, but it passes over more traditional seminars without comment. The government department regularly offers a number of such classes, including “Human Being and Citizen” and “Fundamental Questions: Exercises in Political Theory,” both of which introduce students to the great books of political philosophy. What’s more, every major must take at least one course in political theory to complete the requirements for the major, ensuring that Bowdoin graduates in government (the largest major on campus) will have some familiarity with classic texts. On a related note, at least five government courses assign The Federalist Papers. Although the report generally exempts the government (and economics) departments from criticism, it seems less interested, even by its own lights, in what Bowdoin does well.

This said, much of what the NAS report describes is, I am sorry to say, spot on. First, the report traces the steady retreat from the core texts of Western civilization and their replacement with a much more ideological and multicultural curriculum. (This politicization ought to come as no surprise. It was exactly what in 1962 the “Port Huron Statement” put out by Students for a Democratic Society advised radicals to do.)

Second, the report calls attention to the shallowness of the College’s understanding of diversity, which is literally no more than skin deep. As a recent chair of the government department, I have seen the lengths to which the administration is willing to go to identify and recruit such candidates. Every faculty search must now include a member of the Diversity Committee, whose main purpose is to ensure that the members of the department give every consideration to diversity hires. These committee members, being drawn from other disciplines, usually have no knowledge of the field, though that does not deter them from weighing in during the selection process, sometimes quite vociferously. Where such diversity is concerned, the administration actively pushes departments to cast the net more widely and to be mindful of even unintentional bias. What’s more, it has redefined positions to increase the likelihood of attracting diversity candidates, which in part explains the shift in the curriculum mentioned above.

Critics no doubt will object that in resisting the push for diversity I want to return to the good old days when Bowdoin was more white, all male and largely Christian. I do not. As the first in my family to attend college, I take great pleasure in sharing my love of Plato and Aristotle, Tocqueville and Lincoln with my students, especially those who, like me, would not have been included in the Bowdoin of old. Encountering these books changed my life, and taught me to think seriously about nobility and human excellence, freedom and justice. I am not alone. W.E.B. du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color-line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of the evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed to Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Far from being the preserve of “dead white males,” the great books have offered a broad array of diverse political and philosophical arguments, emancipating and enriching the minds of those who have the opportunity to study them.

Conservatives, therefore, have no monopoly on the great books. And they do not at Bowdoin. As one of my former students, a self-described rebellious undergraduate and a Democrat wrote to me today, the study of such books is neither an inherently liberal nor conservative cause. Yet the number of courses that engage the Western canon, and do so without reference to the tired trilogy of race, class and gender, is declining.

Third, the NAS report draws attention to the absence of political and intellectual diversity in the academy. Although the administration pays lip service to these concerns, they are not high priorities. In fact, when I raised the matter with a member of the administration while chair, I was told that the College did not have any known socialists either, as if there were a paucity of opinions on the left! If the administration were convinced that the pervasive left-wing tilt of the faculty posed a problem, it could authorize new positions in fields that might attract more conservative scholars, for example, military history or military strategy. In addition, it could make greater efforts to ensure that the overwhelming majority of its liberal faculty does not exhibit any bias, unintentional or otherwise, when conducting faculty searches or granting tenure. As things now stand, the mere hint of conservative leanings weighs against a candidate.

Nor am I as confident as some of my colleagues that they can make up for this deficit by presenting opposing views respectfully. I was not at the faculty meeting where Stephen Meardon observed that faculty chuckled at the very mention of the NAS report, but I was at the 2010 convocation where President Mills observed that conservatives resist sending their children and grandchildren to Bowdoin because they fear they will become alienated from their roots. There was certainly chuckling then.

I freely grant that, for a host of reasons, there are far fewer scholars on the political right, and that not all of them would meet Bowdoin’s rigorous academic standards. But it seems to me that Bowdoin too easily satisfies itself that the absence of such opinions among the faculty poses no serious pedagogical problem. Ten years ago, when the United States went to war against Iraq, the College held a panel discussion, but there was no one on the stage who was willing to defend the American decision. And this near-unanimous leftward tilt holds for every major political issue of the day. How can Bowdoin students be well informed if they are presented only with liberal opinions? I am not suggesting that there needs to be proportional representation of opposing views, but in a country where political opinion is nearly evenly divided, the current political imbalance of the faculty does our students no favor.

Although I do not agree with all the findings of the NAS report, I believe that it highlights serious problems with the current state of education at Bowdoin and at elite institutions in general. The question the report raises is: at a time when college costs are prohibitively expensive, are we offering our students the best liberal arts education that we can? President Mills has offered his initial response to the NAS study. My hope is that the administration, the faculty, and the student body—to say nothing of the alumni who generously support the College—will take the report as an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful examination of Bowdoin’s educational mission. As I wrote in my April 22, 2011 letter to the Orient, I dearly love this college, am honored to teach here, and will do everything in my power to work with President Mills to make it better.

Responses