Sometime this past February, a self-proclaimed "doddering alum" of the Class of 1976 joined the elite club of individuals who have clicked the "Ask Us Anything" button on the Orient Express.
"There was a famous Orient article in which a professor (physics, I believe) tagged a large portion of the student body in general as 'functional illiterates,' a sobriquet which stuck," he wrote. "Any chance of hunting down a copy of that article? It's amusing, because those FIs have ended up forking over some righteous coin."
Indeed, the claim can be found splashed across the top of the front page of the November 16, 1973 issue of the Orient in an article that ran above even the masthead. (In fact, this decidedly saltier Orient staff liked to stick the masthead wherever they so pleased, sometimes sideways.)
In the article, "Extent of Student Illiteracy Worries Faculty," the English department raged and Admissions prevaricated. An anonymous history professor testified that fully one-third of students appeared to be, yes, "functionally illiterate."
"Whoever they are, they are here, and the College must move immediately to deal with the problem they represent," wrote the Orient's editorial board. But there was little doubt about who they were.
"Most of the problem students have been brought to Bowdoin to play a sport," said Professor of English Herbert Coursen.
"The Ivy League schools can absorb a hundred knuckleheads. We can't," stated Professor of English Louis Coxe. "We get too many flower children from Scarsdale who aren't taught anything, at home or in school. They're the culturally deprived ones. They can't do anything except maybe weave baskets."
Mystery solved, then. But, though the November 1973 incident appears to be what our doddering alum was referencing, there remains the dangling reference to a certain physics professor. Fortunately, gross academic and intellectual incompetence seem to have been something of a theme at the time, and said physics professor was involved in a story all his own.
To wit: Earlier that year, in January, students returned to campus to find that physics professor Will Hughes had failed a "record number" of students in his fall 1972 Physics 17 course—almost 30 out of 132. Complicating the situation somewhat, Hughes had fled the country for England.
"We are trying to get in touch with him, as there are various forms of transatlantic communication, but it's difficult because he left without leaving an address," said Dean Paul Nyhus.
In an article accompanied by a Frederick Sommer photograph of desiccated coyote carcasses, Rink Buck wrote that "this corpulent instructor has put on a lion's mane, determined to separate 'the sheep from the goats.'"
(For those keeping track at home, that's five different animals named in one sentence. And, incidentally, this is the same Rink Buck who, at the age of 15, with his 17-year-old brother, became the youngest-ever pilot to fly across the country.)
Following serious transatlantic negotiations, the failing students were granted clemency en masse.
But the incident was not soon forgotten. In an email, Bowdoin historian extraordinaire John Cross recalled off the top of his remarkable head that, in spring 1973, the campus pranksters known as the Green Hornet Construction Company built a "Will Hughes Pre-Med Memorial Cemetery" on the Quad.
Meanwhile, the College had also been embroiled in debate over the report of some committee on curriculum and educational policy. The debates, which on the whole seem rather dull, did produce one gem foreshadowing the accusations of functional illiteracy: namely, that "Bowdoin students have difficulty putting three sentences together that make any sense." The quote is attributed to Professor of Government Christian Potholm.
The Orient, your activist newspaper, replied with a 507-word "Editorial In Three Sentences" (using three periods, eight dashes, nine semicolons, and 52 commas). The final clauses read, defiantly: "Buck You!, you molly-coddled possessors of potholed brainpans, doubters of tri-partite syntactical perfection."