Reading the NAS report, I found that Toscano and Wood had a very deliberate agenda with two main points. Firstly, they wanted to portray President Mills as a villain. Secondly, they expressed dissatisfaction with changes to Bowdoin’s curriculum and culture that favor multiculturalism over Eurocentrism and American history. While the article was extremely well written and attentive, parts were deliberately misleading, especially the sections on sex and tolerance.
President Mills is portrayed as a leader with numerous faults. The report cites his plea to Bowdoin and Maine to vote “Yes on 1” to legalize gay marriage as the administration dictating political policy. Though Mills made this plea as a private citizen, Wood and Toscano see this as an abuse of power and as evidence that President Mills is instructing students how to vote. Any reader of Mills’ letter would see that President Mills presents a simple, polite argument that acknowledges the opposite point of view numerous times while still holding fast to his belief. It is not a manipulative piece and does nothing to convince all readers to vote “Yes” or be ostracized at Bowdoin.
The authors ridiculously criticize President Mills’ comments after September 11 arguing the fact that he did not mention the effects of the attack on America as a whole and instead focused on the Bowdoin community and the need to support each other is problematic. This characterization is banal, meaningless and insulting. That President Mills chose to focus on supporting the College does not put him at fault in any way. Deigning to mention this vignette only detracts from this work as a whole.
The authors have a very different philosophy on what a liberal arts education should be than that of the College. Common themes are the need for American history and an emphasis on the West. The distribution requirements are described as vestigial excuses for a core curriculum, and the specialization of courses is seen as inferior to survey courses.
As a student who was required to fulfill distribution requirements, I argue they are far from vestigial. Not only were some of the courses surprisingly challenging, but also the expanse of knowledge covered to merely fill these requirements was quite vast. I was exposed to Venetian art, Japanese emperors, supply and demand, and much more. I grumbled about finding VPAs, complained about social sciences, but I took the classes and gained something from each experience.
I am a biology major and an English minor, yet I have also taken history, Asian studies, classics, physics, chemistry, and gender and women’s studies classes. Were I forced to relearn about the Constitutional Convention or how many old white men signed the Declaration of Independence, I may have been unable to take some of these classes. Instead, I can now converse about Titian’s development as an artist, the fall of the Tokugawa emperors, Plato’s theory of the cave, and the mating habits of Anseriformes.
Rather than looking around a campus and finding only people who take the same classes and learn about the same topics, students are exposed to nearly 2,000 other minds with different experiences. Our specialization and choices help define us as students and as people. Increasing the number of survey courses would be detrimental to our educational growth.
In the section on sex the authors garbled their report to the point of intentionally providing misinformation. Wood and Toscano spend a few pages mentioning “Speak About It”—a performance about issues of sexuality written by Bowdoin students—and summarize that “the overarching message of the performance is have sex freely, in the form you deem desirable, but make sure that your sexual partner or partners agree that this form of sex is agreeable.”
Ignoring the report’s other snarky comments on the performance, this account is wrong. Consent was the most important part of the play, not that everyone is required to have sex. The performers depict abstinence as a perfectly viable option. Describing this performance as deliberately promoting sex is simply incorrect.
Even more problems arise with the discussion of rape. The authors criticize Bowdoin for telling students the national averages rather than only the Bowdoin statistics. They claim this is equivalent to “some form of collective hysteria.” This is insulting to every member of the community and especially to every person at Bowdoin involved in trying to prevent sexual violence. Telling students the national averages rather than school statistics is not the same as making false claims. Imbuing healthy caution is not the same as creating hysteria. All this is done in a pioneering effort to support victims of sexual violence and prevent future incidents. Bowdoin is head and shoulders above many peer institutions in this regard and find these arguments particularly hard to swallow. The College does not “encourage student sexual activity and facilitate it,” as the authors write. Instead, Bowdoin understands that there will be sexual activity and attempts to ensure that it occurs in the safest environment possible.
Wood and Toscano also jump to a number of conclusions without any evidence. Just because Bowdoin does not preach abstinence, it is not fair to say that the campus has an “abundance of visual and verbal sexual vulgarity and pornographic expression.” Because much of the Bowdoin community is sexually tolerant, events such as Yellow Shirt Day are not just for “those who feel the need to defy community norms to achieve a sexual frisson.”
Bowdoin is certainly not perfect. The actions taken by community members are not meaningless and Bowdoin is not a cesspit of immoral students. It is a college where people grow and exchange ideas.
However, I admit that there are some merits to “The Bowdoin Project” as well. Firstly, the mention of Bowdoin’s attempts at “gaming” the “US World and News Report” rankings is quite interesting and worth reading. Secondly, the problem of students being underprepared for college is a problem many students deal with. I certainly had trouble adjusting, and maybe having a more rigorously-dictated first semester would have ensured I got the necessary skills to succeed. This is especially interesting in light of the selectivity versus diversity discussion of the report. Thirdly, drinking may be a problem at Bowdoin. I personally don’t mind security being lax on underage drinking, but, like the authors of this study, I am quite biased.
The report is full of Bowdoin history. Reading it will teach a massive amount about Bowdoin College and how things have changed over the last 50 years. I respect the authors for the time and effort they put into this work and, while I disagree with their conclusions, I do not want to take away from their achievement. If this report sparks a healthy discussion on education as a whole then it is a gift to our school.
I think the main conflict that I and many other readers have with this report is based on a difference in philosophy. I believe that a liberal arts education should be very much student-driven, and that having only a few set requirements encourages personal growth and a passion for endeavors undertaken.
Wood, Toscano and Klingenstein, have a different philosophy on what a liberal arts education should consist of. That’s fine; they do not need to send their children to NESCAC schools. Bowdoin is my home and I love it here. The school may not be perfect, but it’s still pretty damn good.
Toby Zitsman is a member of the Class of 2013.