Illiberal Arts Colleges

What should liberal-arts colleges teach?  The conservative National Association of Scholars warns that elite schools such as Bowdoin have mutated into anti-liberal-arts indoctrination centers.  Instead of guiding students through the rigors of arts and sciences, NAS suggests, schools such as Bowdoin train students only to mouth hackneyed slogans.  Instead of guiding students through the difficult work of mastering an intellectual tradition, Bowdoin sends its professors off to conduct research and releases students to wander in an intellectual meadow.

Bowdoin is not the first college to come under criticism from NAS recently.  The conservative higher-ed association also published a study of the ways American history is taught at the University of Texas—Austin and Texas A & M University.  At those prestigious schools, NAS concluded, an ideologically slanted focus on race, class, and gender had supplanted traditional interest in diplomatic, religious, and political history.

The Texas report naturally generated some opposition.  Diplomatic historian Jeremy Suri, now of UT—Austin but formerly from my alma mater, called the NAS study “misleading, and frankly dumb.”

The kerfuffle at Bowdoin had its roots in an awkward golf game.  Thomas Klingenstein, who calls himself a “conservative” “Wall-Streeter,” described his golf game with Bowdoin President Barry Mills.  Mills had told a Bowdoin audience that they needed to address the problem of liberal bias on Bowdoin’s campus.  Too many of Bowdoin’s graduates, Mills suggested, would otherwise never be able to make sense of this “Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin moment in our history.”  Klingenstein accused Mills of understating the problem of liberal bias at Bowdoin and many other schools.

During the golf game, Mills and Klingenstein disagreed on the scope and nature of the problem.  For instance, according to Klingenstein, Mills believed former Harvard President Larry Summers got what he deserved for suggesting that women might have some sort of innate difficulty with science.  Klingenstein disagreed.  Klingenstein also disagreed with Mills’ definition of the goals of “diversity.”  While “inclusion” was a worthy goal, Klingenstein argued, “diversity” had come to include “too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference (particularly as it applies to blacks), and not enough celebration of our common American identity.”

As a result of this “civil” disagreement on the links, Klingenstein supported the NAS inquiry into Bowdoin’s ideological slant.

As Peter Wood describes in the preface, the NAS Bowdoin study had three aims:

The first is to provide an accurate, vivid, and up-to-date account of what Bowdoin attempts to teach its students.  The second is to analyze whether that teaching has been compromised by contemporary ideology. . . . Our third purpose is to look at elite higher education in America using Bowdoin as a representative example (pg. 14).

In the end, the NAS report concludes, since a 1969 decision to abandon general-education requirements, Bowdoin has decayed into a state of “internal disorder” (pg. 356).  Though the report notes that Bowdoin still offers an excellent array of courses and that a diligent student could still get a thorough education, since 1969 Bowdoin had made the all-too-common problem of making each student

the autonomous authority on the content of his education.  Having turned the student into a consumer with complete freedom of choice, it became insurmountably difficult to declare that the college itself had both the better insight and the authority to require students to meet some substantive general education requirements (pg. 356).

Compounding this problem, research needs of the faculty came to overshadow faculty teaching requirements, the NAS report concludes.

In the end, the study argues, Bowdoin gives “privileged prominence to some political ideologies and squelches opposition to those views” (358).  Instead of true diversity, Bowdoin embraced a deeply flawed interpretation of the laudable intellectual goal of “critical thinking,” according to the NAS study.  All students will be drilled in such shibboleths as “The importance of diversity, respect for ‘difference,’ sustainability, the social construction of gender, the need to obtain ‘consent,’ the common good, world citizenship, and critical thinking” (359).  But such notions, often worthy in themselves, were not part of a process of “open debate.”  Bowdoin students, instead, learn to repeat mantras and “certainties on some of the most contentious issues of our time” (359).  As a result, the NAS study warns, “When critical thinking is most necessary, it is most absent” (359).

The NAS study is titled, “What does Bowdoin teach?”  It concludes with a punchy list of things that Bowdoin does not teach:

Intellectual modesty.  Self-restraint.  Hard work.  Virtue.  Self-criticism.  Moderation.  A broad framework of intellectual history.  Survey courses.  English composition.  A course on Edmund Spenser.  A course primarily on the American Founders.  A course on the American Revolution.  The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present.  A course on the Christian philosophical tradition.  Public speaking.  Tolerance towards dissenting views.  The predicates of critical thinking.  A coherent body of knowledge.  How to distinguish importance from triviality.  Wisdom.  Culture (pg. 360).

Ouch.  Not just Bowdoin, but liberal-arts education as a whole stands accused.  We can be certain that defenders of Bowdoin’s vision of education will soon offer a rejoinder to this conservative broadside.





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  1. John

     /  March 25, 2018

    NAS is racist.

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