Arthur Brooks first visited Bowdoin College not as a prospective student or a visiting fellow but as a French Horn instructor for the Bowdoin International Music Festival. He was 22 at the time, and was working as a professional musician after dropping out of college at 19.
“I remember walking across the beautiful campus saying what a dream it would be to go to college, and to go to college here,” Brooks told a crowd of students and faculty members on Thursday evening. Now, over thirty years later, he has returned to Brunswick as the inaugural Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow.
Thursday’s forum served as a capstone to Brooks’ visit—the first of two this academic year. Seats in the Visual Arts Center’s Beam Classroom were limited to members of the Bowdoin community who pre-registered for the event and were asked to read Brooks’ recently published book “Love Your Enemies” and watch “The Pursuit,” a 75-minute documentary about his life and work ahead of the event.
Brooks joined Tess Chakkalakal, Peter M. Small associate professor of Africana Studies and English, and Associate Professor of History Page Herrlinger in discussion on topics ranging from social media to climate change.
After delivering a 20-minute opening statement describing his upbringing in Seattle, Washington and outlining the premise of “Love Your Enemies,” Brooks responded to questions from professors and students. Many audience members pressed him on the policies of American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank Brooks led between 2009 and 2019.
Linnean Professor of Biology and Biochemistry Bruce Kohorn and Diego Grossmann ’20 both asked about AEI’s political support for climate change skeptics. Brooks denied that AEI provided financial support for climate change denial during his tenure as president but stressed that advocates for environmental protection should respect conflicting opinions.
“There are trade-offs when it comes to economic development and environmental concerns. There just are,” Brooks said. “Look, none of us in this room should have to choose between an apocalyptic environmental scenario and people not dying of poverty.”
After the forum’s conclusion, Kohorn expressed frustration with Brooks’ equivocal answer.
“He says we should trust in institutions. Well, let’s trust science,” he said.
Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger and Associate Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence both took issue with what they described as Brooks’ simplification of contemporary political debates in “The Pursuit.” Selinger pointed out that economic systems are not strictly socialistic or capitalistic, and that Americans typically support some combination of the two.
“There’s a way in which some like to misidentify the problem, or say it’s about capitalism versus socialism. In fact, it’s actually a debate between different ways of organizing capitalism,” Selinger said after the forum. “I do think that there’s a difference between the person we saw here in this room and actually what we somehow managed to kind of see on the Netflix documentary, or perhaps in other clips. So it makes you wonder, which is the real character.”
Will Hausmann ’22, disagreed and instead appreciated the opportunity to find common ground with Brooks.
“I disagree with Arthur Brooks in quite a few significant ways, but at the same time, I think when we have discussions like this, I realize how many of the values we share,” said Hausmann. “I think sometimes it’s easy to get lost in some clear and substantive but still relatively small … disagreements we have.”
Brooks had a busy two days on campus. In addition to the Thursday forum, he hosted a discussion on spirituality and the pursuit of happiness in the Student Center for Multicultural Life, participated in two government classes and had dinner with faculty. Brooks had breakfast with the Bowdoin Democrats and College Republicans this morning in Lancaster Lounge.
Benjamin Felser ’22 participated in the conversation on spirituality at 30 College Street. The leader of the Bowdoin Meditation Club, Felser said that although he appreciated Brooks’ focus on issues of happiness and faith, he found the College’s emphasis on that specific area of Brooks’ study somewhat cynical.
“I think that investigating the importance of including compassion and concerns for happiness in politics and activism are incredibly important to discuss, but it seemed like the school used buzzwords like ‘happiness’ and ‘love’ to avoid talking about his politics,” Felser explained.
Concurrent with the forum, the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) hosted an alternative discussion in the Pickering Room. Fifteen students and two faculty members attended a roundtable discussion where they critiqued Brooks’ tenure at AEI and the process that led to Brooks’ appointment.
Benjamin Ray ’20, an organizer of the event, said Brooks’ time on campus presented an opportunity for students to deeply scrutinize his positions.
“I think there is a time for disruption and there is a time for us to think about what we wish had been done differently, and for us to come together as a community to talk about the issues,” said Ray. “I think it is more important for us as students to develop rational critiques of the system he works to perpetuate.”
At the conclusion of Brooks’ time on campus, Herrlinger expressed satisfaction with students’ thoughtful engagement with Brooks’ ideas.
“We wanted everyone to bring their voices, and their diverse opinions, and their perspectives, and everyone was welcome as long as it was in the spirit of honest inquiry,” Herrlinger said. “And I think that’s what people brought … I was really impressed with the way students stepped up.”
Reuben Schafir and Ian Ward contributed to this report.