In its October 14 editorial ("Klingenstein's Study"), The Bowdoin Orient questioned the validity of the Bowdoin College study that I am conducting. You say that the study cannot be "objective" because it is funded by Tom Klingenstein and it "appears to be driven by a clear agenda."
Your editorial also notes that the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has "never conducted a study on only a single college before" and that "the motive for this study is not genuine intellectual curiosity."
The editorial finally and "most importantly" faults the study as something that "does not recognize the critical thinking abilities of Bowdoin students."
I understand the Orient's skepticism. Let me try to allay it. First, a word about the NAS and myself.
My academic field is social anthropology, I was a widely-published professor of anthropology for many years, and I served as an academic administrator in a research university and later at a liberal arts college.
In addition to teaching anthropology, I've taught other subjects in a liberal arts curriculum (literature, writing, philosophy), in settings ranging from community colleges to a program for prison inmates serving long terms.
The common thread in all of this is my interest in the liberal arts as genuinely broadening and humanizing. The liberal arts are a way of liberating ourselves from prejudice and small-mindedness and of thereby coming to know more about the world.
The NAS is an organization founded 24 years ago in order to foster "reasoned scholarship in a free society." NAS is made up mostly of faculty members who are by no means all conservative, from colleges and universities around the country. Among other activities, NAS pursues research projects that typically aim at capturing large-scale trends in higher education.
Our purpose, which is neither liberal nor conservative, is to promote traditional liberals arts curricula of high standards and integrity.
Our two most recent research reports focus on the gradual disappearance of Western civilization survey courses over the last half century ("The Vanishing West") and the rise of mandatory summer reading programs for soon-to-be college freshmen ("Beach Books").
NAS has a long and easily accessible record of research studies, all of them publicly available and careful, systematic, objective, and transparent.
The Bowdoin study is no exception. We have done numerous in-depth studies involving more than one college as well as studies of single institutions such as accrediting agencies.The Bowdoin study fits squarely with our core competence.
The Orient says our study "appears to be driven by a clear agenda" and that "the motive for this study is not genuine intellectual curiosity."
I suppose this is another way of saying that we know our conclusions in advance. We don't.
Like any researchers, we frame hypotheses and then we test them against the facts, adjusting the hypotheses as the facts warrant.
In the case of the Bowdoin study, we hypothesize that certain core beliefs at Bowdoin are rarely challenged because there is very little exposure to competing beliefs. It is true that these core beliefs (for example, diversity and multiculturalism) are normally characterized as "liberal."
The Orient also claims that Tom Klingenstein's funding compromises the quality of the NAS study. Not so.
If the study turns out to be poorly done, it will be solely my fault, not a consequence of how it was paid for. I ask that you wait for the completion of the study before judging it biased.
Lastly, the Orient claims that the NAS "does not recognize the critical thinking abilities of Bowdoin students" and urges us to "remember that education is not brainwashing."
I don't have any doubt that Bowdoin's students are extremely bright and often think "critically" but I also suspect that they, like all of us at times, do not always do so. In any culture there are unexamined assumptions that inform beliefs and behavior.
In good anthropological fashion, we are trying to bring such assumptions to the surface.
This chore almost always requires the perspective of independent outsiders. If we do this well, we will illuminate what a liberal arts education means in contemporary America.
We might—and I hope we will—provide the basis for further constructive conversations on how to make such education better, first at Bowdoin, but also beyond Bowdoin.
I hope that the Bowdoin community recognizes this potential and possesses enough "intellectual curiosity" to venture a cautious welcome.
Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars.