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How Not to Defend the Liberal Arts

The NAS makes an unconvincing case for a traditional curriculum, and misquotes Plato.
Bowdoin College

The National Association of Scholars has released a report on the state of liberal education. Taking Bowdoin College in Maine as a representative example, the report argues that America’s liberal arts colleges are failing students by lowering academic standards, substituting highly specialized courses for broad surveys, and encouraging trendy political activism at the expense of serious study. These claims are staples of conservative or traditionalist critiques of higher education, but that doesn’t mean they’re false. Unfortunately, the NAS study is written in a way that makes it unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with its conclusions.

The problems begin to emerge in the opening pages, which include  a foreword by Bill Bennett and prefatory letter by Thomas Klingenstein, a board member of NAS and the Claremont Institute whose encounter with Bowdoin president Barry Mills inspired the report. In different ways, each contribution signals that the report is a sermon for the faithful rather than an attempt at conversion.

Bennett begins by asserting that “Plato… remarked that the two most important questions in society are ‘Who teaches the children?’ and ‘What do they teach them?’” Unfortunately, Plato “remarks” no such thing, at least in any of the works known to me (I invite readers to correct me if I’m wrong). I suppose that the phrase could be a reasonable, if rather simplistic summary of Plato’s thought about education. But the actual source appears to be a Michelle Malkin column. The phrase also appears, without a specific citation, on a number of cut-and-paste quote sites. Misquotation happens all the time, of course. But it’s a bad start for a defense of traditional education–particularly one that claims that Bowdoin students aren’t learning enough about Greek philosophy.

Klingenstein’s letter reflects a more serious problem. It is addressed to “to all Bowdoin alumni, but in particular to those over the age of, say, fifty to fifty-five, a line that more or less demarcates old Bowdoin from new.” I cannot imagine an appeal more likely to alienate readers outside movement conservatism. By appealing explicitly to nostalgia for mostly white and (until 1971) all male “old Bowdoin”, Klingenstein places the report right in its critics’ crosshairs.

The authors’ tin ear for readers’ sensibilities is in evidence throughout the report. In particular, the report shows no sympathy for students who doubt, with some justification, that old Bowdoin had room for them. Acknowledging such doubts does not mean agreeing that cheerleading for “difference” is the best remedy. Rather, it should be the starting point for the argument that traditional liberal arts education has something to offer all serious students.

The report does little better appealing to potential readers on the faculty. Here, the challenge is to demonstrate that critics of the college status quo understand the intellectual and professional context in which academics work. The report fails do that.

A small, but telling example of this failure is the report’s self-description as an “an ethnography of an academic culture, its worldview, customs, and values.” It’s actually nothing of the kind. The report is based on considerable research in public documents and some interviews with students. But it includes none of the direct observation or explicit reflection on the way that observation can influence outcomes that characterizes academic ethnography. There is no more effective way to tick off professors than to misuse a technical concept. That’s especially true when that concept is supposed to describe the study’s relationship to the faculty itself.

More importantly, the report tends to conflate interest in traditional subjects and teaching styles with political conservatism. It also associates conservatism with support for the Republican party. That’s precisely the opposite of the argument that defenders of a traditional curriculum ought to make.

One reward of teaching Plato, for example, is students’ discovery that classical philosophy cannot be associated with any specific political commitments. Indeed, it challenges all modern ideologies. And as for professors’ partisan allegiances, let’s get real. It is quite difficult, and correspondingly rare, for anyone who takes scholarship seriously to get excited about an organization so consistently and loudly anti-intellectual as the current incarnation of the GOP.

Finally, largely because it focuses on official records rather than direct observation, the NAS report gives readers little idea of what actually happens inside the classroom. Yet this information is crucial to answering the report’s titular question “what does Bowdoin teach?”

The real, and damning, answer is: “it’s hard to say.” That’s because Bowdoin has long ago abandoned any institutional commitment to an integrated curriculum. The report explains in one of its most interesting sections that Bowdoin made a fateful decision in 1970 to replace the old core curriculum with loose distribution requirements. Since then, what Bowdoin teaches has been determined by institutional happenstance and student choice rather than any substantive vision of the knowledge and skills worthy of a human being.

The consequences of this self-inflicted wound are not limited to the loss of intellectual coherence. Although its cultured despisers often miss this point, the old-fashioned curriculum was also egalitarian in a way the cafeteria model of course selection is not. With the assistance of responsible advisors (which is not a given, but by no means uncommon), students who graduate from private schools and top public high schools with strong basic skills and cultural literacy can usually design a fine course of study for themselves.

It is much more difficult for students who never received a true college-preparatory education. Since professors trained in specialized research are often reluctant to teach introductory classes or cultivate the rudiments of reading, writing, and quantitative reasoning, these students can easily get lost intellectually and socially. In effect, if not in intention, the cafeteria curriculum is a concealed mechanism for the reproduction of privilege. Under the cover of freedom, it offers the greatest advantage to students who already understand the system.

A real ethnography of an elite liberal arts college might investigate this paradox. It might also tell the stories of professors who face the challenge of “selling” demanding courses to students burdened by few requirements in departments oriented toward publication rather than teaching. I suspect, or at least hope, that a study of this kind would find a favorable reception among academics of various political political stripes who are dismayed by lowered standards, gimmicky classes, and administrative fads, but recognize that there’s no return to the old days. The NAS report is a missed opportunity.



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