Bowdoin, like all elite academic institutions, tasks itself with the contradictory responsibilities of fostering “critical” thought while pumping out successive generations of the ruling-class elite it is beholden to. At the Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony this past Friday, the hypocrisy that results from such a contradictory mission was laid out in full display. The ceremony included two speakers, a student chosen by an administrative committee and a professor chosen by student vote. This year, Caitlin Loi ’20 and Assistant Professor of History Salar Mohandesi gave talks entitled “Driven by Heart” and “History after the End of History,” respectively.
Loi, looking forward to post-grad life, praised the ways Bowdoin has allowed her to take a wandering path forward—forgoing the “ought-to’s” in favor of the “want to’s.” Through all the unexpected turns, she has realized she wants to be a classroom math teacher; it’s where she feels happiest. She plans on pursuing a career in teaching somewhere down the line.
Yet the wandering path approach has been illuminating—why would she go into her dream job right after college, without some other “real world” experience? No, she explained, that would be short-sighted: she will instead be taking a job on Wall Street to solve real-world math problems and relieve herself of financial stress (cue crowd laughter). When she eventually leaves the Street, such real-world experience will make her much more effective in the classroom. The crowd—mainly parents of the highest-GPA-earning students—applauded with vigor. President Clayton Rose returned to the podium gushing with pride and wished Loi the best of luck.
Mohandesi took the stage to deliver a slightly less heartwarming address. We live in a time of global crisis, he argued, a crisis that challenges systems we take for granted. To many, the world order established in the final decades of the 20th century heralded the ideological victory of neoliberalism and free-market capitalism. World powers accepted the system that would take them full speed into eternity and, as Francis Fukuyama put it in 1992, “history was over.” The right way forward was no longer up for debate—or was it? Flipping through slide after slide, Mohandesi painted a divergent picture: Nazis once again marching in Germany, a warming Arctic in shambles, the Yellow Vest protests in France. The grand ideological battle, he warned, is far from over.
Traditional political coalitions are fracturing, economic inequalities are skyrocketing and climate change has injected apocalyptic language back into everyday conversation. He quoted Fukuyama again, from 2018: “It seems certain things Marx predicted are turning out to be true.” There was some nervous laughter throughout the auditorium, but, at the end of his speech, he received the same vigorous applause. President Rose rose again to express his pride and admiration.
Clearly, neither of these speeches represent the actual viewpoint of the College, but that’s kind of the point; at an event President Rose calls “one of the great days in the life of our college,” Bowdoin was reminded of the unsustainable ideology it depends on while it selected and applauded graduates heading off to Wall Street to “enrich the classroom.” Does this school have selective hearing? Or is it not listening at all? While many students might argue we should be sending teachers to Wall Street (to occupy?) instead of the other way around, it’s clear the College itself would never endorse such a view—as the recent, drawn out fight for a living wage has illustrated, Bowdoin is tone-deaf when it comes to actual discussions of class—and it takes only the briefest look at Bowdoin’s finances and alumni network to piece together why.
So, with this in mind, what does Bowdoin actually stand for? Does it stand for adversarial, critical thought—the type that drives our fight for social and environmental justice—or does it stand for the interests of the elite? Bowdoin continuously attempts to straddle the line, but as the irreconcilable divide between these two goals becomes increasingly evident, we must accept the unsustainable foundation of our school’s identity. The startling hypocrisy of the Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Ceremony made it clear that currently, we don’t really stand for anything at all. We can’t just pump out “woke” members of the ruling class and pretend that’s what makes us great. The world is too smart for that guise.
While I don’t pretend to hold any unique insight or magic answers on how to forge the best path forward, I do see it as our responsibility to call out specific instances of hypocrisy when they occur, in the hope that someone finally listens. With the amount of privilege Bowdoin students are allotted, it is the least we can do.
Brendan Murtha is a member of the Class of 2021.