Here's your latest in identity politics and victimology: One day not quite three years ago, Thomas Klingenstein, a rich white man, found himself playing golf with Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin College. They were reportedly discussing the state of higher education and Klingenstein, by his own account, told Mills that he believed today's colleges provide "too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference (particularly as it applies to blacks), and not enough celebration of our common American identity." After that encounter, Mills went on to tell the story in a convocation speech, without using Klingenstein's name, to describe the estrangement between contemporary conservatives and liberal academia.
Klingenstein, learning of the speech, felt that he had been misrepresented and othered by a college culture that refused to value his perspective as a rich white man (or, in the idiolect of rich white men, "our common American identity"). So to assert his own agency and voice, he paid $100,000 to a right-wing think-tank to investigate Bowdoin College and write a report about how it exemplifies the decay of American higher education.
The result—as assembled by white, male researchers for the National Association of Scholars—runs to 360 pages (though it "awaits small adjustments in pagination"). The conclusions are that Bowdoin fails to teach, among other things:
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.
So, basically: Bowdoin fails to teach a high school curriculum (from, say, 1950).
But besides not making college students sit through 11th grade AP history, what else does Bowdoin have going for it?
• By making SAT scores optional for applicants, Bowdoin is undermining the accuracy of the arbitrary and unaccountable U.S. News college rankings.
If the numbers were reported, Bowdoin's ranking would have been lower.
It is natural to wonder how much lower, but the opacity of U.S. News & World Report's ranking system make it hard to say
• Bowdoin actively reaches out to recruit a variety of students to attend the college, broadening its applicant base.
The Office of Admissions runs a series of programs targeting minority high school students. These are the Bowdoin Invitational, Explore Bowdoin and the Experience Weekend, each of which is a four-day weekend program that is supposed to give the students a first-hand introduction to all that the College has to offer.
• Bowdoin treats gender, which is a social construct, as a social construct, rather than a biological fact.
Here Bowdoin flatly announces that gender is a social construct, the sole purpose of which is to subjugate women. Is gender, according to this view, entirely a social construct? "In light of the social construction of gender" seems to say so, and at the very least it forecloses any interest in other possibilities, such as biology. Individual courses on gender at Bowdoin are built on these assumptions, as is almost all public discussion of the matter
• In its seminars for first-year students, who are adults, Bowdoin includes material suited to adult audiences.
Some of these courses are solid; yet some catch the eye as distinctly odd course offerings for college freshmen, or perhaps any undergraduate: "Sexual Life of Colonialism," "Modern Western Prostitutes," "Native American Stereotypes"?
(The investigators also note that a seminar called "Queer Gardens" "does not teach critical thinking as well as Plato's Republic," which is unquestionably true, because, as they write, the seminar did not attract enough students and was not taught at all.)
• Courses at Bowdoin are often cross-listed among departments, emphasizing a shared tradition of knowledge rather than isolating academic work into narrow specialties.
Bowdoin teaches, among other things, that the academic disciplines and the larger divisions—science, social science, and humanities—are artificial constructs and that the knowledge (in many cases) most worth pursuing in a liberal arts education lies in web of connections that links disparate topics and approaches.
• Students at Bowdoin engage in a variety of forms of consensual sex.
The Student Handbook provides a definition of "Sexual Intercourse." It is "penetration (anal, oral or vaginal) by a penis, tongue, finger or an inanimate object." This is a somewhat odd definition—one at odds with common usage, if not always with dictionary definitions. It treats oral and anal sex as the equivalent of coitus, and equates "inanimate objects" with human genitalia. And, if taken literally, it defines French kissing as sexual intercourse.
The definition's breadth and ambiguity is not an accident or oversight. Rather, Bowdoin is taking care to say that it regards all (or nearly all) forms of human sexual conduct as legitimate. Bowdoin students are free to express their sexuality as they see fit, in so far as the participants have gained "consent."
(A search of the report indicates that the National Association of Scholars included the words "sex" or "sexual" 244 times. "Western civilization" appears twice.)
• Some students at Bowdoin use moderate amounts of recreational drugs, and the campus newspaper is not sensationalistic about it.
In October 2010, the Orient surveyed the student body concerning drug use. It received 590 student responses, approximately 34 percent. Marijuana usage:
Thirteen percent of respondents said that they use marijuana on campus or in the Brunswick area ‘weekly or more,' 16 percent ‘every month or two,' 23 percent ‘once to a few times,' and 49 percent ‘never.' In response to a question of how often they see another student smoking or under the influence of marijuana, 55 percent of respondents indicated ‘weekly or more.' Twenty percent reported ‘every month or two,' 17 percent 'once to a few times' and 8 percent ‘never.'
Use of other drugs was reported to be much less frequent. Only 7 percent of respondents reported using prescription drugs recreationally "once to a few times." Ten percent reported using LSD "once to a few times." Five percent used hallucinogenic mushrooms "once to a few times." Four percent used cocaine "once to a few times." "One hundred percent of respondents reported ‘never' having used methamphetamines, heroin, or crack cocaine." Thirty-eight percent (227 of the 590 respondents) used drugs in a college dorm or apartment, and 22 percent (129 respondents) used drugs in a social house.
The Orient concluded from this in its headline, "Campus poll reveals mild drug scene."
• Bowdoin is concerned with how the world will develop in the future, rather than focused on an ossifying past.
Bowdoin does very little to foster a sense of obligation or stewardship to the achievements of past generations. Bowdoin sometimes senses the importance of history, but is unwilling to show history any real respect. Mills again makes the point. The early presidents of Bowdoin were committed to what they called "the Common Good." By this, they meant primarily the virtue and piety students were supposed to model to the larger society. Mills has kept the term, but replaced virtue and piety with ideas of social justice, transnationalism, and sustainability.
Conclusions: Bowdoin sounds like a decent place for young people to get an education, provided they also want to enjoy themselves. Rich white people sure find ways to spend their money.