The objectivity and effectiveness of The Bowdoin Project produced by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) should be determined by assessing the methods by which the authors arrived at their conclusions. Such a determination has not yet been made by most commentators. 

Yet, an analysis of these methods reveals the severe limitations of the report. Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, the authors of the report, only relied on internal documents and make no in-depth inquiry of current educational content to determine what Bowdoin teaches. These major weaknesses neutralize the report’s usefulness.

The most serious weakness is revealed in a preliminary document, not included in the final report, which explains that the authors’ information is based entirely on internal Bowdoin documents. While Wood and Toscano reviewed a substantial amount of printed material and produced a total of over 400 pages, they did not broadly review course syllabi, reading lists and assignments. They made comments about first-year seminars without an in-depth understanding of the options. 

Further, Wood and Toscano did not attend any classes on the Bowdoin campus. Only three interviews ever found their way into the analyses. Many students refused to be interviewed, and their inputs are fundamental to ascertaining what Bowdoin or any educational institution teaches its students and the extent to which it meets its mission. There is no documentation that the authors penetrated the inside of what Bowdoin teaches or what Bowdoin graduates do with their education.

The authors used a sample of one to make generalizations about the status of the liberal arts. This is not close to scholarship. At best, it is a flawed case study. The selection of Bowdoin as their first and only study site is shrouded in happenstance. 

The authors refer frequently to the Bowdoin course catalogue, which contains only brief course descriptions, and ignore basic principles in the research design they selected. Thomas Klingenstein observed that studying the course catalog would provide only a small insight to what the college teaches. Yet, there is no evidence that the authors collected information beyond the course catalogue to understand the dynamics of what Bowdoin teaches in the classroom on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis and what skills, knowledge and values a Bowdoin student absorbs. There are huge, unacknowledged assumptions throughout the report.

 The NAS has an explicit bias, which it admits. That can be found in the mission statement of NAS, in the introductory letters for the report and in the content of the report. This violates one of the pristine standards of any scholarly research. There is no inclusion of an in depth and personal portrait of Bowdoin. The authors apparently read everything they could find and then tried to stitch together a comprehensive evaluation, based on their preconceived model of a proper education. That is not rigorous scholarship. It is selective and much too narrow. The authors are on very thin ice to describe their work as utilizing an ethnographic approach, as they claim. 

Only Toscano spent extended time on the Bowdoin campus. This was not documented as to time of the academic year nor if he attended any meetings or events.  

The authors did not list all the bibliographic references they used. While they listed many, they simply did not provide a complete list. This is sloppy scholarship, and disqualifies the report as credible research.

To summarize, the Bowdoin Project should not become a catalyst for new discussions about the design and delivery of the Bowdoin curriculum and campus life, because it is substantially compromised by its methodology. Thomas Klingenstein, Wood and Toscano asserted they desired to offer a commentary on the status of contemporary liberal arts education. They did not come close. They did not conduct any inquiry of other, similar institutions. There have been no peer reviews of the Bowdoin Project. These are serious and unacceptable attributes for any balanced analysis to occur.

Steve Loebs ’60 is a professor emeritus at Ohio State University