Since September 2011 The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been researching and compiling a report on liberal arts education in America, using Bowdoin college as a case study, and the results aren’t pretty.
The report reveals that Bowdoin’s curriculum not only lacks a semblance of core requirements to teach students fundamental subjects, but is also filled with “incoherent and trivial courses” such as a class entitled “Queer Gardens” (dropped due to a lack of student interest) which surveyed the horticultural achievements of gay and lesbian gardeners.
In their report entitled “What Does Bowdoin Teach?,” Peter Wood and Michael Toscano of NAS say they wanted to study Bowdoin College’s “curriculum, student activities, and campus values… to learn what a contemporary liberal arts college education consists of.”
What they found was a college that had pledged itself to open-mindedness and critical thinking, but which instead features a curriculum that fails to teach and suffers from a culture devoid of values.
NAS began their project recognizing that a college teaches much more than what can be found in a course catalog and thus broadened their study to, among other subjects, university policies, extra-curricular activities, and campus culture and community. With the goal to “build a well-rounded portrait of contemporary elite liberal arts education,” NAS chose to focus on only one school and chose Bowdoin as an exemplar of the modern American liberal arts education.
The educational philosophy at Bowdoin is animated by the notion that students receive a coherent education not by following a prescribed path but rather by being liberated to study nearly whatever they desire. This notion, coupled with the marked lack of intellectual diversity and skewed academic focus, creates a student body that is, as the report describes, extremely well versed in racial grievance, anti-capitalism, multiculturalism, and social justice. Yet students know little, if anything, about the plays of Shakespeare, the Civil War, or Aristotle
The NAS study found that Bowdoin lacks political diversity. With an estimated four or five politically conservative faculty members out of approximately 182 total faculty members, Bowdoin College is a predominantly liberal community that lacks diversity of thought.
In the 2012 presidential election 100% of faculty donations went to Obama. The President of the College, Barry Mills, has acknowledged this lopsided political bias. But he and the faculty at large see this as no hindrance to Bowdoin’s goals of open-mindedness and critical thinking. Mills argued that liberal professors aptly and sufficiently present conservative views on campus.
Beyond the classroom, the report adds that Bowdoin has long given up on cultivating students’ moral life, yet by virtue of teaching such young and malleable minds, cannot refrain from shaping students’ character. As such, the college definitively promotes sexual promiscuity, disdain for America, and a haughty sense among the students of being “know-it-alls” flattered by their own brilliance.
Ashley Thorne, the director of the Study of the Curriculum at NAS, says she hopes people will “recognize that a college shapes its students beyond the classroom and that in what it funds, cheers for, punishes, holds sacred, deems profane, alters over time, and takes pride in—it is still teaching.” In the future, Thorne says, the NAS hopes to expand this project to study other liberal arts institutions and learn more about larger trends in higher education.
“What Does Bowdoin Teach,” sheds a critical light on the state of higher education in America. The study reveals a campus plagued by close-mindedness, a lack of political diversity, aimless curriculum, and a harmful sexual culture—problems that aren’t unique to Bowdoin college.
According to Thorne, the NAS hopes this report will “spark a national conversation on what the liberal arts is and what it should be.”
Fix contributor Alec Torres is a senior at Yale University.
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