A 360-page National Association of Scholars report released earlier this month places Bowdoin College in Brunswick at the center of a renewed controversy over the value of liberal arts education. The report, titled “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students,” argues that the college’s administration has cultivated a culture that “illustrates the intellectual and moral deficit of the American academy,” as former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett wrote in a foreword to the report.
The NAS report dusts off familiar arguments that Bowdoin, like most liberal arts colleges, shifted in the 1960s from rigorous scholarship based on classical studies and Western philosophy to a progressive, multicultural academic agenda that thwarts critical thinking by being hostile to conservative political perspectives. Authors Peter Wood and Michael Toscano relied on faculty meeting minutes, student newspaper articles, speeches by college presidents, course catalogues, on-campus interviews and other sources to conclude that “politics is enthroned where reason once reigned” on the Brunswick campus.
Strikingly, the report about what Bowdoin teaches — and what that means to higher education — depends far more on archival research than on firsthand experiences in classrooms. For that reason, and because funding for the 18-month research project came from a philanthropist who clashed with Bowdoin President Barry Mills over the school’s educational direction while the two were golfing, it would be easy to dismiss the NAS report as an intellectual tempest in an ivory teapot.
However, its core arguments that Bowdoin’s commitment to global citizenship, social justice and sustainability undermine the teaching of critical thinking warrant closer scrutiny. That’s because they reflect an entrenched approach to higher education that influential people, including Bennett, a former U.S. education secretary, believe should guide the way “the next generation of high school teachers” and other U.S. citizens are taught to view their place in the world.
Wood and Toscano indict global citizenship, and its corollary interest in diversity, as a doctrine that “strikes a blow against individual rights, a foundational idea of the modern West.” But that argument fails to recognize that the United States, at the heart of the “modern West,” grows increasingly diverse each day and that information technology makes an objective understanding of the global marketplace crucial for the West’s future leaders. Ignoring those demographic, cultural and economic transformations would equate to denying biological evolution.
As Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, told the Pittsburgh Business Times, “Diversity pushes innovation, and there is a war for talent out there.” Maine stands to gain if more diverse student bodies at campuses throughout the state make it possible to inject more talent into the workforce.
The NAS study also suggests that because Bowdoin makes “sustainability the general rubric through which students understand humanity’s relation to the natural world,” they are deprived of opportunities to explore the roles that progress and invention could play in providing solutions to problems posed by the impact of human activity on natural resources. But that ignores the question of whether initiatives to reduce Bowdoin’s demand for fossil fuels and use campus facilities to test innovations in conservation and renewable energy generation have scholarly merit or other benefits outside the political context. Sustainability and innovation are not mutually exclusive or in competition, as the report implies.
Finally, Wood and Toscano completely miss the point in their assertion that “when Bowdoin upholds the ideal of students as ‘citizens of the world,’ it bypasses the question of what students owe to their local communities and their country.”
Through the stepped-up efforts of its McKeen Center for the Common Good, Bowdoin has pushed its students to become far more engaged in the local community. Rather than simply sitting in classrooms discussing the correlation between Dickens’ representation of poor children and the Malthusian Dilemma, Bowdoin students tutor in local schools, volunteer for community youth groups, help at a clinic that provides medical care to low-income residents of the Brunswick area and otherwise demonstrate that being a good citizen of the world starts by serving the community in which you live.
Critical thinking tells us that’s a lesson that should be embraced.