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If you’re on the lookout for first-class ideological indoctrination in America today, there’s plenty of it to be found, of course, at such sprawling, internationally famous universities as Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley. As a rule, however, these places are so big that there’s room for pockets of dissent. They’re so big that they can’t totally cut themselves off from the real world, as much as they might want to; many of them, in fact are located in or very close to major cities, whose authentic diversity only underscores the factitiousness of the kind of “diversity” promoted on those campuses. Plus they’ve got departments of physics and engineering and so on, staffed by brilliant, serious people who deal not in dogma but in rigorous analysis and demonstrable scientific fact and whose work has valuable and important real-world consequences.
No, if you want to see ideological lockstep and rinse-and-repeat brainwashing in their very purest form, it’s best to look to the small, elite liberal-arts colleges – preferably those that are located out in the middle of nowhere or in adorable little college towns where the colleges themselves set the local tone. Case in point: Bowdoin, the alma mater of Hawthorne and Longfellow, no less, which was founded in 1794, is located in Brunswick, Maine, has just under 1800 students, and (as it happens) is the subject of a new report by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano of the National Association of Scholars. What Does Bowdoin Teach?: How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students not only offers a comprehensive anatomy of Bowdoin’s curriculum but also implicitly invites the students, alumni, and trustees of similar liberal-arts colleges, from Williams and Carleton to Amherst and Haverford, to ponder the extent to which their own institutions suffer from the same failings as Bowdoin.
Many of these institutions, after all, have a good deal in common, from tuition costs that are upwards of $40,000 a year to undergraduates who’ve been congratulated so often on being admitted to them that they make Harvard students look as if they have inferiority complexes. (Wood and Toscano quote one Bowdoin kid’s statement that “our student body represents some of the most intelligent youth of the world. Bowdoin’s worst student is by far and away [sic] much more astute than the vast majority of humans.”) These places are also, very often, worlds unto themselves – to their credit, the folks at Bowdoin openly acknowledge the existence of something they call “the Bowdoin bubble” – where students are encouraged to see the college itself as something of a city on a hill: a small-scale model of the better, more progressive world they should strive to help establish after they graduate.
A Wall Street Journal article about the report details its origins: after NAS board member Tom Klingenstein chided Bowdoin president Barry Mills on a golf course about his college’s ideological uniformity, Mills (without mentioning Klingenstein’s name) cited the comment condescendingly in a convocation address, implying that his golf partner was some racist, right-wing plutocrat who didn’t cotton to Bowdoin’s magnificent diversity – when, in fact, Klingenstein had been criticizing the college precisely for its lack of real diversity, namely diversity of opinion. After Kingenstein got wind of Mills’s speech, he wrote a piece explaining what he’d really said on the links and ended up funding this study. Wood and Toscano underscore a crucial fact about this story: namely, that no one who listened to Mills’s speech is on record as having noticed its utter self-contradiction – namely, Mills’s implicit definition of diversity as the exclusion of the kind of views held by people like Klingenstein.
If no one at Bowdoin noticed this self-contradiction, it’s because this kind of self-contradiction is the woof and warp of contemporary academic orthodoxy – an orthodoxy whose goal, note well, is not to teach young people to think rigorously and analytically about all types of ideas, and thus enable them to recognize such logical lapses, but rather to endlessly reinforce the iron grip of leftist ideology on their minds, which is far easier to carry out if their critical skills remain as lax and lazy as possible. So it is that when such kids, in later life, are challenged by persons who don’t share their views, they rarely have anything to offer in response other than name-calling, personal attacks, and accusations of “racism” and the like (and most of the time they don’t even realize they’re not actually engaging in intellectual discourse).
At Bowdoin, as at other such colleges, diversity in the contemporary academic sense – meaning a fixation with group identity – is at the root of academic life today. “Bowdoin,” Mills told students in a speech, “is truly a place of real diversity in the broadest sense as compared to the communities [in which] you may now choose to live.” So diversity-minded is Bowdoin, in this sense, that identity-studies programs constitute no less than 18 percent of the curriculum. While Bowdoin doesn’t demand that students take any courses in “English, philosophy, foreign languages, European history, American history, world history, government, religion, psychology, or sociology,” and doesn’t even require history majors to take so much as one course in U.S. history, it’s compulsory for history majors to take a certain number of courses in non-Western history. Not to mention that there’s a proliferation of student clubs based on group identity. Long lost is the idea that it should be an objective, when bringing together kids from a wide variety of backgrounds to be educated, to transcend such categories; on the contrary, the idea is to produce young adults for whom class, race, and gender labels are the very pillars of self-knowledge.
While it’s just not done, at a place like Bowdoin, to praise America and American values, absolutely no superlatives about the college and its values are considered too hyperbolic. When Mills gave a speech immediately after 9/11, he had nothing whatsoever to say about America, choosing instead to take the opportunity to celebrate Bowdoin’s values: “we at Bowdoin above all stand for what is just and right.” Such absurd parochialism is typical of these colleges. So, Wood and Toscano point out, is the inculcation of “knowingness” – a trait that they describe as “the antithesis of humility,” “the enemy of education,” and “the formula for intellectual complacency.” These aren’t, in other words, ignorant students who are starving – and striving – for knowledge; they’re ignorant students who have been trained to be smug and self-satisfied, to think that they’ve already got all the answers and that they themselves are the solution to the world’s problems. Why, after all, should they be eager to learn? Academic ideology has already answered all the important questions. Besides, it’s been made clear to them that there’s nothing in particular they need to learn. All of life is an elective. Course content is irrelevant; what matters is that you approach every topic with a reflexive, unquestioning belief in social construction, “social justice,” and “global citizenship.”
Wood and Toscano have provided a magnificent, and alarming, anatomy of the curricular crisis at Bowdoin. But they’ve gone further, taking on such topics as campus drinking and sex. I wish they hadn’t. This shift of focus muddies the waters, risks leaving the impression that they view these age-old aspects of college life as somehow linked to left-wing academic orthodoxy, and invites critics to dismiss them as reactionary fuddy-duddies. In fact, the triumph of ideology so effectively delineated in their report should be of the deepest concern to all conservatives and genuine liberals (as opposed to leftist ideologues) who understand just how vital the preservation of classical liberal education is to America’s future.
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