April 12, 2013

M.D. Harmon: Study shows Bowdoin swaps critical thinking for conformity

Conservative scholars apparently have no place at a college where liberals dominate.

The National Association of Scholars' report on "diversity at Bowdoin College" (my alma mater) has been out for more than a week now.

Responses to its content have varied from reported "chuckles" among faculty members to comments I've received from concerned alumni following my March 29 column on its pending release. The alumni uniformly said the school described in the 360-page document is not the one they remember attending.

Other observations have appeared in national publications, including the Wall Street Journal ("The Golf Shot Heard Round the Academic World," by editor David Feith, April 6), the Real Clear Politics website ("The Sad State of Liberal Education at Bowdoin," by Hoover Institution fellow and NAS scholar Peter Berkowitz, April 3), Bloomberg.com ("What Parents Don't Know About Bowdoin," by prominent author and columnist Amity Shales, April 3) and National Review Online ("Queer Gardens, Pocahontas and Prostitutes" -- the content of three freshman seminars offered in 2012 -- by media analyst Eliana Johnson, April 3).The Bowdoin Orient, the school's newspaper, chimed in with a fairly well-balanced report on April 5, worth a look at www.bowdoinorient.com/article/8171.

The "chuckles" comment comes from a letter to the Orient by Assistant Professor of Economics Stephen Meardon, who wrote last week citing a letter he had sent to Bowdoin's president, Barry Mills. He told Mills, "I was sorry to hear my colleagues chuckle at the mere mention of the NAS study at today's faculty meeting. I am sorrier to say that, to my ear, you encouraged them.

"I was present at your convocation address in September 2010 and admired your aim. 'We must guard against political correctness and a culture where everyone ... is supposed to feel comfortable,' you said, and rightly.

"The chuckles were the sound of people resting comfortably with the conviction that the ideas in the study, probably a good deal different from those that dominate around here, need not be seriously entertained. It's a different sound entirely from your admirable convocation address."

It's impossible to do the study justice in this space, but its principal author, NAS president and former Boston College professor Peter Wood, a social anthropologist, says, "What impressed me about Bowdoin was the sheer intellectual incoherence of the college ... (which reveals) a lot of triviality."

And the report, in major sections on academics, "diversity," the college's conception of "the common good," faculty recruitment and composition, and student life, among others, says the lack of focus began with Bowdoin's 1969 abandonment of academic requirements aside from those in a student's major field.

As NRO's Johnson says, "That decision has reverberated to the present, affecting 'everything about the college,' (Wood) argues. It has deprived students of a common intellectual base, encouraged specialization within academic departments and facilitated the appointment of faculty members who prioritize research over teaching."

The result, says Hoover's Berkowitz, is not that "Bowdoin teaches contemporary progressivism ... That is a view about freedom and equality with deep roots in the American political tradition." However, the school identifies that progressivism, "and the various and sundry policies associated with the left wing of the Democratic party, as equivalent to morality and reason."

As evidence, the report says 100 percent of faculty political donations went to Democrats in 2012, and of the school's 180-plus faculty, only a tiny handful are openly conservative.

"Informed by this conceit," Berkowitz says, "it is only natural that through tone, gesture and outright exclusion of alternative points of view, Bowdoin instructs that dissent from the contemporary progressive perspective can only issue from a faulty intellect or a cold heart -- or both."

Indeed, conservatives' purportedly flawed intellects were recently cited by a Bowdoin professor as the reason few conservatives are on the school's faculty. And in a conversation with a prominent local Democrat last week, I was told directly that most conservatives just weren't smart enough to teach in colleges.

I wasn't surprised, as I've heard that view before -- beginning in college. In a forward to the NAS report, William Bennett, a former U.S. secretary of education, wrote, "Bowdoin has supplanted the 'classical liberal' principles of reasoned argument, the West, the universally true, and the potential for discovering the truth. Instead, its regnant orthodoxies are ideas such as 'global citizenship,' 'social justice,' and 'sustainability.' A free society rests on a commitment to reasoned argument. When illiberal dogma is substituted for reasoned argument, it compromises its own liberal arts principles and erodes the basis for a free society."

Or, as the NAS report concludes, "What does Bowdoin not teach? Intellectual modesty. Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. ... Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture."

That's certainly something to chuckle about, isn't it? 

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

Correction: The publication date of M.D. Harmon's column on the pending release of the National Association of Scholars' report has been corrected.

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