I wrote a post earlier this week on the National Association of Scholars’ report on the condition of the American liberal arts college, represented by Bowdoin in Maine. I was critical of the study, which I found rhetorically provocative, intellectually shallow, and generally unsympathetic to reasonable concerns about social inclusion. Despite these criticisms, I share many of the ideals highlighted by the NAS statement of purpose. The argument of the post was that the Bowdoin report won’t do much to promote them.
Bowdoin’s president Barry Mills offered a response. Fairness demands that it be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the NAS report. It doesn’t stand up very well. Mills refutes a narrow interpretation of the report’s more exaggerated claims. But he evades some serious issues that they raise.
Mills begins by denying that Bowdoin is anti-American. He points out, among other things, that its campus includes several memorials to American war dead and that its public events include moments of ceremonial patriotism.
All this is true, as a simple Google search reveals. But it is also beside the point. Bowdoin cannot escape its heritage and does not attempt to. The real question is whether these tributes are anything more than photo opportunities. As Mills acknowledges, it’s “important that we honor America through memorials and music, but most important is what we teach our students about this nation and its traditions.” So what does Bowdoin teach?
According the NAS, the answer is: not much. In particular, they observe that Bowdoin does not require students to take any course in American history, that Bowdoin offers no general survey of American history, and that “there are no courses devoted to political, military, diplomatic, or intellectual history except those that deal with some group aspect of America.”
Mills responds that Bowdoin doesn’t need an American history requirement because almost all Bowdoin students take an American history course voluntarily, while a survey is unnecessary “because our students come to Bowdoin well-grounded in American history and seek more in-depth analysis.” He also identifies several courses offered “this year” that involve themes from political, military, and intellectual history.
This is a weak rebuttal. To begin with, it is obtuse to claim that the only purpose of course requirements is to force students into classes that they wouldn’t otherwise take. Requirements also signal an institutional commitment to teaching in particular areas and guarantee the all students have the same background of knowledge and skills before moving on to upper-level work. So it’s wonderful that (according to Mills) close to 100 percent of Bowdoin students take at least one course in American history. Given the variety of periods, topics, and approaches in American history, however, that’s compatible with the judgment that Bowdoin’s curriculum is fragmented to the point of incoherence.
Next, Mills’s claim that Bowdoin students don’t need a general overview is unconvincing. My own experience as an undergraduate, graduate student, and college teacher (albeit in political science, not history) suggests that high-school instruction is almost never a substitute for an introductory survey in college. For one thing, many students complete American history classes early in their high school career. In most cases, they could use a refresher by the time they start college. Moreover, most high school courses are taught from textbooks rather than primary documents and scholarly literature. So even students who arrive at college familiar with major figures and basic chronology benefit from revisiting them in light of more demanding sources.
But the real reason that elite colleges are reluctant to offer survey courses has nothing to do with students. It’s that many professors, who are trained as specialists and rewarded for research productivity, strongly dislike them teaching them. This is a systematic problem, for which neither Bowdoin nor Mills is responsible. But liberal arts colleges and their leaders could play a leading role in responding to it by putting students’ educational needs first.
Now, Mills’s insistence that Bowdoin offers many specialized courses in traditional areas of American history is an important correction to the NAS study. It does not appear that all the classes Mills mentions are on offer this year. But a glance of the history department’s website reveals a number of classes that should pass muster with the stodgiest traditionalist. History 140, “War and Society” even includes readings from Victor Davis Hanson.
But the issue isn’t whether it is possible to take such classes at Bowdoin or comparable schools. The traditionalist argument is that they should do more to ensure that most students are exposed to important aspects of America’s heritage. Mills invokes Bowdoin’s fashionable commitment to “preparing our students to become global citizens in a global economy and for careers that call for critical thinking, judgment, and principled leadership.” What traditionalists are really asking is why Bowdoin no longer aims to cultivate American citizens of our democratic republic.
Mills offers no answer to this question. Indeed, he does not even acknowledge it as a serious concern. For all its distortions, then, the NAS study does a service by raising claims of place, patriotism, and cultural stewardship in American liberal arts education. There is, or ought to be, no better setting in which to consider them.