The end of liberal education — Part Two, the Bowdoin experience

Scott has done an outstanding job of covering the story arising from the NAS report by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano on Bowdoin College called What Does Bowdoin Teach? In his most recent post, for example, Scott provides valuable links and commentary.

I agree with Stanley Kurtz that there is nothing quite like What Does Bowdoin Teach? Why? Because, as Kurtz says, (1) 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 and (2) no one has thought to to mine a college’s own archives to substantiate charges of bias. (Actually, I once did some mining of Dartmouth’s archives on a very small scale, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post.)

Kurtz is right in insisting there’s no substitute for simply diving into What Does Bowdoin Teach?. For those who won’t, however, I offer a slightly condensed version of William Bennett’s excellent Foreword:

In this report, Peter Wood and Michael Toscano have painstakingly and truthfully used Bowdoin College as an example of how many liberal arts colleges are failing their students. Bowdoin illustrates the intellectual and moral deficit of the American academy.

The curricular offerings and philosophical worldview that characterizes Bowdoin College—regarded as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country—are in many ways antithetical to the American experiment and the best traditions of learning. Moreover, this study shows how this intellectual climate does not befit the traditions of Bowdoin, a school that has shown itself to be excellent in many other respects.

This report is unique and important in several ways:

The report is perhaps the most deep and specific to date on how progressive ideology has altered the character of American higher education. By focusing on just one college in detail, the authors capture the full context of how advocacy and ideology have significantly displaced the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of character. Their hope is that faculty members, administrators, parents, and yes, students from other colleges, will recognize the less desirable features of Bowdoin College in their own institutions.

The authors have done a remarkable job in showing the inconsistency of Bowdoin in its commitment to ideas of “open-mindedness” and “critical thinking.” These ideas are necessary preconditions for healthy intellectual discourse. But Bowdoin has supplanted the “classical liberal” principles of reasoned argument, the West, the universally true, and the potential for discovering the truth. Instead, its regnant orthodoxies are ideas such as “global citizenship,” “social justice,” and “sustainability.” A free society rests on a commitment to reasoned argument. When illiberal dogma is substituted for reasoned argument, it compromises its own liberal arts principles and erodes the basis for a free society.

This report shows that Bowdoin’s curriculum is frequently incoherent and trivial. One course that was ultimately cancelled because of lack of student interest was entitled “Queer Gardens,” a survey of the horticultural achievements of “gay and lesbian gardeners” and a rereading of literary works on gardens from a “queer” perspective. Aside from being a course that, in all likelihood, neither cultivates the principles of critical thinking, nor possesses a canonical set of texts to explain the human experience, it sounds altogether trivial.

The authors show that Bowdoin’s faculty members in the “studies” programs are often appointed more for their skin color, gender, and highly specialized research interests than their ability to teach. The advising system is dysfunctional, and students are generally left to piece together their own educations out of the jumble of courses and ideological themes on offer.

History majors at Bowdoin, for instance, are not required to take a single course in American history. And some of these students are the next generation of high school teachers. Perhaps most serious, the academic demands on students outside of class are minimal: students are found to study, on average, a mere seventeen hours per week outside the classroom.

One cannot predict how much, if anything, a Bowdoin graduate will know about the philosophy of Aristotle, the plays of Shakespeare, or the Civil War. . . .But it is very likely that Bowdoin’s more recent graduates are well-versed in racial grievance, anticapitalism, social justice, and multiculturalism. These perspectives are often the product of identity studies curricula that are so popular on college campuses.

These programs undermine the idea of America. Bruce Bawer has written, “[W]ith every kid who emerges from college possessing a diploma—and an idea of America derived not from the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but from the preaching of identity studies—the American miracle fades a bit more into the mists of history.”

Lastly, a word about character education. Bowdoin long ago abdicated from a philosophy of in loco parentis, in which a school assumes some responsibility for the cultivation of the student’s moral life. Although Bowdoin still shapes character, it does not actively or intentionally seek to shape good character. The college effectively promotes sexual promiscuity among students, fosters a sense of permanent grievance among students (including a disregard for America), and produces a supercilious knowingness among students that too often flatters rather than educates.

I have been thinking, writing, and speaking about education for forty-five years. This spring, I and my coauthor David Wilezol will release Is College Worth It? a volume of our own that addresses these issues, as well as the soaring cost of higher education.

It is imperative that America recognize the damaging influence that many universities are having on the future of the nation. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation is the philosophy of government in the next.” The harmful real world consequences of substandard higher education are unacceptable. But thanks to Dr. Peter Wood and Mr. Michael Toscano, they are not inevitable.

Bennett’s last sentence strikes me as debatable. My experience, especially with Dartmouth, suggests that the fight to preserve liberal education is probably lost. I will expand on this pessimistic assessment in upcoming posts.

Meanwhile, you can find Part One of this series here.