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More than a name change

January 31, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board.

On Monday, the faculty introduced a motion to revise the “Exploring Social Differences” (ESD) distribution requirement. The proposal aims to strengthen the requirement and rename it “Difference, Power, Inequity.”

On a campus where bias incidents seem to recur every four years, preparing students across all academic disciplines to discuss and analyze social differences is essential.

By necessity, Bowdoin’s curricula change to meet the needs of the time and the student body. In 1822, the freshman class had to read Xenophon (in Greek!) and Livy (in Latin!), Webber’s Arithmetic, Murray’s English Grammar and Blaire’s Rhetoric. Now, who has graduated from Bowdoin having read any of these, let alone all of them in their first year?

It is time for it to change again.

We agree that the ESD requirement is well-intentioned. On paper, it seeks to expose students from varying backgrounds to topics that expand our understanding of the human experience. In practice, however, ESD courses often fail to engage meaningful questions of social and political inequality.

For example, take the case of the perennially-popular “Introduction to Classical Mythology,” course, which fulfills the ESD requirement yet seems tangentially related to current issues of social differences. We don’t deny that this is a valuable course, and it certainly explores social differences in the ancient Mediterranean, but a course about ancient mythology should not fulfil a requirement about social difference.

The ancient world is not our world. But just like Bowdoin’s math department no longer uses Webber’s Arithmetic and instead opts for modern textbooks, we should also move to more modern examples of diversity, power and inequity to give us a more complete and rigorous understanding of today’s realities.

This distribution requirement should be a powerful thing—providing useful and urgent knowledge about our changing world and the inequalities that permeate it. These classes should better equip us to serve the Common Good with the liberal arts lens we take so much pride in.

According to Assistant Professor of Sociology Theo Greene, the vague labeling of ESD courses “doesn’t necessarily have the teeth” for rigor, and often allows students to dodge the challenging conversations most necessary for their growth as intellectuals and as human beings.

While Bowdoin brings in outside academics and activists devoted to exploring the issues of diversity, power and inequity, we ought to be cultivating these ideas in the classroom, not importing them from the outside. This takes work and effort, just like any course in any major. To be effective, these conversations need to be curricular.

The intellectual curiosity which led students to choose Bowdoin should also lead them to a deeper study of disciplines beyond their primary interests.  From chemistry to English majors, all Bowdoin students should graduate with an ability to critically evaluate the differences in our world. The College is failing if they don’t.

We are optimistic about the outlined changes seeking to make this requirement a truly constructive experience, and we hope that the faculty think critically and act promptly to achieve these goals. And we hope that these conversations will continue to be integrated into every discipline, affecting real change beyond a name and concept.

Bowdoin has five distribution requirements. They shouldn’t just be another box to check. They should mean something.

This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Maya Chandar-Kouba, Emily Cohen, Brie Cunliffe, Julia Jennings, Roither Gonzales, Alyce McFadden, Jaret Skonieczny and Ayub Tahlil. 


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