Ladies of the night turn tricks. Liberal arts students turn phrases. “That’s just the way it is,” says Tupac.
Society expects college graduates to be literate. At Bowdoin we take it one step further, expecting even the hardest science majors to graduate knowing how to read and write. Great Expectations. Flippancy aside, liberal arts schools believe it is essential that their graduates possess an ability to both understand and participate in the written discourse of the world.
It may sometimes be difficult to picture the real world from our “Bowdoin Bubble,” but it is easy to explain the training process: read, write paper, repeat. The big brains designed the curriculum so that it is impossible to make it through your first year without writing at least three papers. These are not just any old papers either. We expect Bowdoin students to take on civilization’s biggest questions. Bowdoin professors ask students to wrestle with racism, genetics, string theory, Freud, failed states, and the writings of many esoteric dead people.
Not only do they ask you to weigh in on the big issues but they also expect you to construct a coherent and well-supported argument. Or if that fails, students can always resort to throwing academic jargon at the wall until something sticks. Vague allusions to social constructs, heavy block quote usage, or the period trick are all time-tested last resorts.
Essentially, Bowdoin trains all of its students to be academics. While few will actually go on to become scholars, one needs to look only at the recent Orient article by several professors describing their jobs to see the striking similarities. Heavy helpings of reading, writing, and discoursing.
Discoursing is my favorite. God knows I love my liberal arts education dearly, but I have to confess: sometimes when I hear the word “discourse” too many times in a day, my bullshit meter explodes. A liberal arts degree offers countless advantages; that whole business about counting nature a familiar acquaintance, and art an intimate friend is good stuff, but there are some nasty pitfalls as well.
Nope, not lessened employment prospects. Bowdoin students are privileged with the Career Planning Center and with better-connected networks than Comcast.
Housed and educated in the liberal arts ivory tower, dangerous habits can form surreptitiously.
There is this temptation at Bowdoin to think that any issue can be solved by talking it to death. To believe that dialogue is a substitute for action. To hope that merely acknowledging issues will be enough to cure them. To make plans and never follow through. While passively ingesting media gigabyte by gigabyte, it is easy to forget that action is the currency of the world, that to get a job done you have to get your hands dirty. Without action, the majestically creative solutions in which we take such pride start to sound an awful lot like unicorns and dragons.
Sometimes, though, it is clear that our solutions should stay hypothetical. Because sometimes our solutions suck. There is a pervasive belief that we are qualified to weigh in on every issue, even when we are woefully underinformed.
We are accustomed to professors asking, “What do you think?” In some cases, however, it would be better if we acknowledged that not every issue can be simplified to a ten-page paper.
For example, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be reduced to a snappy Orient article on hummus and cultural expropriation. Equating one culture’s use of another's recipes to cultural theft is a suspect claim that only serves to inflame issues and prevent reasonable dialogue. The style and form of academia only work when you put in the legwork beforehand.
Elitism. Bowdoin prides itself as a training ground, and a breeding ground for that matter, of the world’s best and brightest. Ideas and intellectual horsepower abound on campus, and it is exciting to be a part of. Yet, I worry that we get too caught up in this idea, that while we dutifully acknowledge what a privilege it is to be in this environment, we accidentally assume an aura of superiority. I worry that we conflate academic excellence with excellence as people. That the lack of negative feedback we receive as students, leads to an unjustified self-confidence. I have this fear that when they set us free into the “real world,” we’ll have lost sight of regular old common sense.
Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I am a hypercritical, insecure worrier. But maybe a sense of humility is needed to temper all those generous enthusiasms and avoid the pitfalls of feeling too much at home in all lands and ages.