I was pleased to read Professor Patrick Rael’s article in the Orient responding to “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” Professor Rael and I disagree about many things but I welcome his comments as at least an effort to reckon with some of the substance of our critique of liberal arts education at Bowdoin.  

As to the disagreement: Rael draws a colorful picture of what the National Association of Scholars (NAS) report “presupposes,” and then spends his time knocking the stuffing out of the presuppositions. 

If I were to declare that the Bowdoin history department presupposes the existence of unicorns, I could with similar enthusiasm debunk the history department. But the history department doesn’t presuppose unicorns, and the NAS doesn’t presuppose, as Rael would have it, a time “when scholarship was both apolitical and non-ideological.” Nor do we call for a form of history that ignores black people, Native Americans and women. Nor we do believe history should exclude “the marginalized.” Unicorns, unicorns. Rael has offered a whole herd of unicorns. 

No one at the NAS wants a version of American history that ignores blacks, Native Americans, the “marginalized” or women. Professor Rael wonders how we could possibly want a course on the Civil War not to include “slavery and emancipation.” We would not want and didn’t call for such a course. Indeed, in our response to President Mills we said that, “It makes good sense that courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction would deal with group aspects of America.”  

Rael’s larger point is that, in his view, the NAS promotes a view of history that would exclude the many and extol the few. He writes that we want a history dedicated “to celebrating the achievements of the non-marginal.” We don’t seek a history that “celebrates” anything. And we aren’t looking to squeeze out the non-marginal. We do think it makes sense to pay substantial attention to historical actors, events and processes that played important roles in their times. That can be done without ignoring “history from below.”  

Rael adds a final paragraph that offers a very odd explanation of why “it is important to study the past.” One might have thought that historians teach history because the past bears on the present; that it teaches us something about human nature; that the interweaving of the large and small narratives reveals essential truths. No? No. Rael says Bowdoin students study history “to develop the answers to that question for themselves.”  

Bowdoin, at least as Rael presents it, teaches that the “importance of the past” is whatever students happen to make of it. That’s not something NAS “presupposes.” It is what a senior history professor at Bowdoin says.  Of course, what they happen to make of it might have something to do with a curriculum that privileges race, class and gender above all other aspects of history. This duality, extolling freedom while enforcing conformity, is a major theme in our report and it’s helpful to have Professor Rael’s evidence that we got it right. 

Peter Wood is President of the National Assoication of Scholars (NAS) and co-author of the NAS report, “The Bowdoin Project: What does Bowdoin Teach?”