Posted: May 20, 2013
owdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, is an institution of good reputation and high quality, where I have some friends. It offers a liberal arts education typical of the best available in America today. It troubles me that Bowdoin, rather than, say, Harvard—a bigger and richer place where I work—should be made an example of. Nonetheless, Peter Wood and Michael Toscano have done just that in a comprehensive new study, "What Does Bowdoin Teach?" the first of its kind and probably destined to be the best, which shows in the practices and principles of one college what political correctness in our time has done to higher education in our country.
The authors are conservatives and their study was sponsored by the National Association of Scholars, a conservative organization. (It is available as a free download at www.nas.org.) It seems that liberals, even those critical of American education, are not inclined to investigate what their liberalism has done to it. Once upon a time, earlier in my life, liberals took pride in the high standards they set for the colleges that they had recently come to dominate and had made the headquarters of their liberalism. Now, they have made an unholy sacrifice of the devotion to excellence they once prized as a mark of distinction over fuddy-duddy, tradition-bound conservatism, and it is conservatives who stand for high standards in education.
Today's liberals do not use liberalism to achieve excellence, but abandon excellence to achieve liberalism. They have effectually eliminated conservatism from higher education and intimidated—"marginalized"—the few conservatives remaining. These few are the only ones in academia who think something is missing when conservatives are gone. There was a liberal president of Harvard for a brief time recently who thought something was missing when conservatives are gone, and then, courtesy of the liberals,he was gone.
The Bowdoin study was done without the cooperation of Bowdoin, relying on the public statements of its president and faculty, its official documents, and its student newspaper to show what the college is about. Perhaps too much is made of the statements of its president, Barry Mills, a good man as I happen to know. It pains me to see him criticized for affirming things he would have been ousted for denying, as the example of Harvard's Larry Summers suggests would happen. Bowdoin, like other such colleges, is ruled by a certain principle today, the principle of openness. It claims to be "inclusive," open to all claims, yet it does not include conservatives. The study counts perhaps a half dozen conservatives among the 182 faculty members. But according to Bowdoin, this absence doesn't matter. One can be open-minded about conservatism without being conservative, the college believes, perhaps by being objective like a scientist, perhaps simply by doing one's best to understand it. Of course, it's true that the best understanding of conservatism doesn't necessarily come from conservatives, nor from having conservatives present on campus. You need Hindus on campus in order to understand Hinduism? Actually, that is a multicultural imperative that liberals might well apply to Hindus, but will never use to bring in conservatives. Conservatives as opposed to Hindus are the main rivals of—opponents to—liberals in America today, yet somehow it is considered openness not to include those with whom you mainly disagree. This study uses strong words at the end, but only after supplying evidence and argument on the way to its conclusions. It begins with a question: is Bowdoin as open as it claims to be?
It's easy to number the conservatives at Bowdoin and to wonder why so few, but how does their near-complete absence affect the education Bowdoin delivers? The Bowdoin course catalogue states that "Bowdoin students must design an education." They are to do this out of their own goals, the college's "vision," and its requirements. Yet the requirements are few and the vision is openness: the result is that Bowdoin students are mainly responsible individually for choosing the courses they take. Except for light requirements of distribution outside one's major and of concentration within it, requirements that have been lessened whenever the college stops to think about them, the student is free to choose. By this principle, all courses are treated by the college as equal, none more important, none necessary to or contributing more toward the "liberal arts." A liberal arts education, the study says, has become an education in liberating oneself from the liberal arts.
Facilitating this change is a new attitude among the faculty, emphasizing less what students need to know for a liberal education and more what they might want absent that discipline. Hence the arrival of many "topical" courses, as the study calls them, courses that take a current topic, such as the environment ("sustainability") or samesexuality (my neologism), or "global citizenship," or multiculturalism, and show its relation to current research by professors of various specialties. One example, freakish but still exemplary, is a course on "Queer Gardens," which "examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces." It was abandoned because it got insufficient student enrollment—not because the faculty or the professor had second thoughts about this—call it odd—combination.
The equality of courses affects the courses offered; they are less and less survey courses aimed at teaching a subject-matter, and more and more a variety of courses aimed at showing the relevance of a professor's specialty. Courses that still have the appearance of following a tradition—summed up in Bowdoin's longtime favorite phrase, "the common good"—often bend it to the topical model. The phrase itself is bent so as to recommend "diversity" courses. In one official expression the phrase is traced to Richard Rorty rather than John Rawls, revealing a certain slippage within liberalism toward postmodernism that is characteristic of political correctness.
The common good as practiced at Bowdoin is no longer a liberally educated student body to which the professors variously contribute but a collection of students who have individually validated the ill-considered hope of their professors to make them resemble professors like themselves. The college is now not so much a body of teachers teaching students as a research institution that makes small-time, overpraised researchers out of its undergraduates. The research model perhaps fits science students, but the topical courses allow non-science students to be researchers on the frontiers being explored—and defended—by political correctness. Political correctness with its present-minded exactness, its not quite selfless objectivity, and its esoteric jargon is science for non-scientists. Political correctness, the study points out, brings necessary unity to the otherwise incoherent notion of diversity. For how else than by political fiat can one bring together, or be "inclusive" of, subjects defined not by essences but only by their mutually exclusive "otherness"?
Topical courses are featured in programs called "Studies," such as Gender and Women's Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies (separate from the preceding), Environmental Studies, and Africana Studies, that were founded explicitly as political advocacy for their constituents. But also Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, with apparently neutral names, are now concerned mainly with repudiating Western colonialism—long after its demise one would think. The various Studies, but also regular departments, have stimulated other developments in the curriculum—the cross-listing of courses given by one department in another department and the new emphasis on interdisciplinary study. Both have the purpose of making specialty courses seem more general than they are, and both try to endow the idiosyncratic, parochial, even trivial subject-matter of topical courses with the universality of science. The report sums up the Bowdoin curriculum of equal courses as having a certain "flatness" and tending toward "entropy," where faculty and students share the undemanding practice of self-expression, and the uninterest in teaching of the former joins with the uninterest in learning of the latter.
There is a good deal more in the Bowdoin study, but this much will serve to introduce and recommend it. Perhaps I have spoken too long of the curriculum when the main interest of students is the extra-curricular. One could say, indeed, that the curriculum itself is directed toward the extra-curricular, toward the not particularly well-intentioned and certainly foolish hopes for a not very attractive utopia, as the study concludes, that is without wisdom and without culture. I have focused on the curriculum in order to make it clear that what Bowdoin lacks is not so much the teaching of conservatism by conservatives, as if conservatives could be satisfied, and the troubles of academia resolved, by giving conservatives their own brief act in the Diversity Circus. Bowdoin's curriculum lacks the academic standards of excellence that conservatives mostly and mainly defend in academia with little or no help these days from liberals. It is conservatives who deplore and resist the brazen politicization of the classroom, the loss of the great books, indeed the disregard of greatness in general, the corruption of grade inflation, the cheap satisfactions of trendiness, the mess of sexual license, the distractions of ideology, the aggrandizement and servility of administrators, the pretense and dissembling of affirmative action, the unmanly advice of psychologists, the partisan nonsense of professional associations, and the unseemly subservience everywhere to student opinion. None of these was necessary or useful in order to welcome those non-WASPs previously excluded from our colleges.
What Bowdoin produces in its students, according to the study, is a certain "knowingness," a word that nicely captures an attitude I see a lot of at Harvard. Students have learned that to see means to see through, instead of to have a good look. There is one bright spot, though. In its diversity Bowdoin decided to allow a "chem-free" dormitory, meaning no alcohol (why not say that?). But it turned out that many minority students opted for this kind of safety, thus failing in their duty to mix with the partying majority, and, combining selfishness with self-righteousness, keeping their diversity to themselves instead of spreading it around so that the lazy majority could lap it up without effort. Minority students made themselves the wrong sort of minority (this is the bright spot), and Bowdoin stomped on them, abolishing the chem-free dorm.
"What Does Bowdoin Teach?" covering much more than can be treated here, contrasts the new Bowdoin with the old Bowdoin. The new came out of the Late '60s and thinks itself greatly superior to the old bastion of white males with its policies of exclusiveness. From this study, one could conclude that the old Bowdoin set and met high standards for itself and for the white males, at least, and that its biggest mistake was to make way so willingly for the new Bowdoin with its liberal, politically correct policies of exclusiveness. What was gained when so much was lost? Bowdoin—representing the American college—is now open, though not to all, and its openness, now exposed by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, discloses a new poverty of undernourished hearts and minds.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.