Alumni like to rant, especially conservative alumni. The disgruntled fellows (it’s usually a fellow) seize any chance for a complaint session alleging whatever errors the school is committing are somehow greater than errors it made in the 1980s, or even the raucous 1960s.
A few years ago, an alumnus of Williams College in Massachusetts, Thomas Klingenstein, took the opportunity of a golf game with the president of Bowdoin, a Maine college similar to Williams, to suggest that diversity received too much emphasis at Williams and that Western civilization received too little. “Common American identity,” where race and class matter less, is lost.
Klingenstein suggested the same might be true at Bowdoin. Bowdoin’s president, Barry Mills, slapped back in a 2010 convocation speech with a half-anonymous reference to a Williams man who wrecked the college president’s golf swing with harsh charges against Bowdoin. Mills said the Williams alum had alleged that Bowdoin “brings all the wrong students to campus for the wrong reasons.” Mills also dropped in a few remarks about “loyal supporters,” which probably had a chilling effect because the words suggested that any Bowdoin alum who might side with the Williams man might be disloyal.
It seemed Mills had won. University presidents usually do. This is partly because conservatives’ charges are usually steamed, unspecific and anecdotal. They lack evidence.
The campuses themselves hardly look unhappy. There are no barricades outside the president’s office on the Brunswick campus. This month, some alums are thanking the stars that their children won admission to the highly selective school. Although many alumni suspect their college’s curriculum is too progressive for their tastes, they won’t easily risk appearing disloyal.
Rather than fulminate, however, Klingenstein funded a study by the National Association of Scholars to see whether his perception of Bowdoin was warranted. He picked Bowdoin, not Williams, to examine, perhaps out of pique. Yet once the work got going, he says, “curiosity replaced anger.” The 360-page study, released this week, suggests that the quiescent Maine college is fundamentally different, more radical, than it was 25, and certainly 40, years ago.
The researchers, Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, commenced by defining their goal: to describe the penetration of what they call “identity emphasis” -- a philosophy that looks at the world in terms of race, sex, ethnicity or other groupings. The National Association of Scholars also looked at green education, because environmental classes are often explicitly anti-capitalist.
Although the report reviews Bowdoin’s history, its real starting point is the 1960s, when the college was both turning away from its religious roots and preparing to admit women. Bowdoin still required four semester courses in each of three areas -- humanities, math and science -- and in social studies. One could say 1960s students had a common education.
Soon, however, this changed. In 1970, in the name of liberating students from “forced exposure” to certain academic areas, the college dropped requirements unrelated to a major. Like many other colleges, Bowdoin introduced official identity studies through what was then called Afro-American studies. In the 1980s, women’s studies was added as a minor. Gay and lesbian studies came along at some point, as well.
All these shifts affected campus life. To many, they seemed a warranted expansion at a stodgy institution. And the undergrad who sought traditional general classes such as “Survey of English Literature” could find them. Bowdoin could claim it offered the best of old and new worlds. This Bowdoin of the 1980s and early 1990s is the Bowdoin that most parents tell themselves still exists.
Yet, as Wood and Toscano show, Bowdoin itself didn’t freeze in the 1980s. It shifted further, with the identity classes proliferating to the present day. Where once there was only one true identity program, Afro-American studies, now there are five: Africana studies, Asian studies, gender and women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, and Latin American studies.
One in five courses offered to undergraduates in fall 2011 was either about a distinct identity or “green,” relating to the environment. Surveys, including coursework on Western civilization, faded: Today, 4.4 percent of Bowdoin’s classes are surveys versus 14.2 percent in 1964.
Courses with traditional names also increasingly emphasize identity. In 2006, Bowdoin introduced a new requirement, a first-year seminar, “designed to help introduce students to what it means to undertake serious intellectual work at the college level.” In 2012, about 10 of the 35 first-year seminars emphasize the difference in identity groups and affiliate with identity-studies programs: “Africana Studies 12: Affirmative Action and United States Society,” “Anthropology 13: Beyond Pocahontas, Native American Stereotypes,” “Gay and Lesbian Studies 17: The Sexual Life of Colonialism.” Students are getting a common education of a sort -- in political correctness -- not one fostering color-blind citizenship.
“Identity studies is the one most inescapable part of Bowdoin education,” Wood says. “The student can avoid anything else, but not this.” A student can get a humanities education there that isn’t based on identity, but not easily. This, in turn, warrants discussion.
Bowdoin will make a ferocious rebuttal to the National Association of Scholars study and may well find flaws in the findings. Still, the Bowdoin project, despite the squabble that seeded it, should serve as a model for alumni action.
Rather than howl or rant, alumni should investigate what happens at their school. Then they will have results for true debate. Such an exercise may not be perfect, but it can be worthy and, yes, loyal.
(Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “Coolidge.” She is the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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