In many respects, the NAS report “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” is not news. Few, if any, would dispute that there is a liberal bias on campus and that our community celebrates and privileges certain views over others. Peter Wood and Michael Toscano explore the College’s politics in part by labeling concepts such as “sustainability,” “multiculturalism,” and “global citizenship” as dirty words and phrases, ideas that do injustice to what the report calls “the American miracle.” Clearly, there are fundamental differences of opinion between the writers of the report and Bowdoin’s educational mission, but to ignore the report because it is predictable or contrary to our own beliefs is to confirm the report’s central finding: that Bowdoin is a close-minded, partisan place.
The report reads like a plea to the good old “sons of Bowdoin,” whom perhaps the writers hope will keep President Mills’ phone ringing off the hook for the foreseeable future. Yet it is true that both alumni and students have the responsibility to consider how—and what—Bowdoin is teaching.
I doubt anyone would argue that nothing about Bowdoin should be changed. The report should be considered not only to test the very critical thinking skills brought into question, but also because, frankly, it contains some useful ideas. For one, I have often been disappointed by the lack of survey courses in the curriculum, and in some way, Bowdoin has limited my ability to explore new disciplines by not offering easier access.
Further, the report is right to question where a college draws the line regarding core requirements. Should all English majors study Shakespeare? Should all students? Should we all read Latin? As is often the case, it is a matter of compromise. The report simply disagrees with the College’s decision over where the compromise should be made, and to think this idea is ridiculous in principle would be a mistake.
As a digression, I wonder what the writers make of the soft drink situation in New York City. Should an institution protect us from taking “Queer Gardens” or from having consensual sex because we don’t know better, but not from buying a Pepsi over a certain size?
As students who have invested ourselves—to varying degrees—in Bowdoin’s educational mission, some of us might feel attacked, and perhaps we have the right to feel this way, especially as the report makes the conscious decision to name names. But if we liberals—and I will self-identify here as a “liberal,” whatever that may mean to you—close ranks and continue, however unwittingly, to stifle minority voices on campus, we are missing a great opportunity.
While the writers do not seem to acknowledge their own capacity for close-mindedness, the report is correct to warn us that replacing one set of dogmas with another does not constitute “open-mindedness.” It is both unfair and untrue to label liberals as open-minded and conservatives as close-minded. Being open-minded does not necessarily mean being traditional or progressive, religious or atheist, capitalist or Marxist, or anything in between.
It means being unbiased in our consideration of new ideas and the opinions of others, and even if many of us, in the end, do not change our mind about whether Bowdoin is educating its students in the “correct” fashion, dismissing the NAS’ report out-of-hand is only proving its point.
Parker Towle is a member of the Class of 2013.