The National Association of Scholars (NAS) just released a 359-page report (pdf) attacking Bowdoin College that proves one essential point: don’t criticize rich guys you golf with.
The rich guy in this case is Thomas Klingenstein, who happened to be golfing with Bowdoin president Barry Mills, and explained his hatred of elite colleges for being too liberal and too concerned with diversity. Mills recounted this story (without identifying Klingenstein) in a convocation address at Bowdoin. Klingenstein came across the text of the speech, recognized himself in it, and was so offended that Mills would falsely accuse him of violating golf etiquette by talking during a backswing that he launched a crusade against Mills and Bowdoin. Mills made the grotesque mistake of daring to say something a rich conservative didn’t like. Since the primary job of college presidents is to make rich people feel good about themselves, this was an unforgivable sin. Klingenstein paid the NAS to conduct this study, as I noted back in 2011.
The NAS are Klingenstein’s hired mercenaries for this fight against Bowdoin, but they are happy to take up the battle. According to the NAS, this report is essentially an indictment of all American higher education: “Nearly everything we have to say about Bowdoin has its counterpart at other selective liberal arts colleges, and much of what we say applies to a still broader range of colleges and universities….On the basis of broad experience, we think that Bowdoin represents the larger reality.” Obviously, taking one of the most liberal hippy-dippy colleges in the country and turning it into the embodiment of all colleges makes for an easy argument. But what’s remarkable is how badly the NAS fails in its attack on Bowdoin (read Bowdoin’s response here).
At times, the NAS report descends into disturbing conspiracy theories and wild speculation. When President Mills praised “our nation’s democratic traditions” in a 2010 speech, citing Martha Nussbaum’s work, the NAS concludes that because Nussbaum uses the phrase “global citizenship,” this is the driving ideology behind Bowdoin College. According to the NAS report (which is laughably ignorant about this subject), the phrase “global citizenship” means “all cultures are equal,” “virtually unlimited government intervention [is] necessary to achieve the global citizen’s understanding of sexual justice,” and “free market economic systems, and the materialistic, bourgeois values that drive them, are destroying the planet.” Moreover, the NAS claims that anyone using the phrase “global citizenship” is demanding censorship and repression of dissenting ideas: “These are notions that are not meaningfully ‘open to debate’ at Bowdoin; indeed, a commitment to global citizenship requires that they not be open to debate.” All of this imagined oppression comes from one speech by a college president that never actually uses the phrase “global citizenship.” Unless you’re one of the Neo-Nazi numbnuts who think UN black helicopters are descending upon us, the phrase “global citizenship” (especially when it is never used) should not inspire these kind of conspiratorial fears.
The NAS is so desperate to attack Bowdoin that one finds it scouring the descriptions of departments, looking for any words it finds appalling, such as this: “Courses in Gender and Women’s Studies investigate the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender and its meaning across cultures and historic periods. Gender construction is explored as an institutionalized means of structuring inequality and dominance.”
According to the NAS, “Here Bowdoin flatly announces that gender is a social construct, the sole purpose of which is to subjugate women. Is gender, according to this view, entirely a social construct? “In light of the social construction of gender” seems to say so, and at the very least it forecloses any interest in other possibilities, such as biology…” The NAS calls this statement “so evidentially closed-minded” and “rather brazen.”
While the NAS may dislike the brazen hussies in Gender and Women’s Studies, there’s nothing repressive about this statement. Gender is “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” according to Merriam-Webster, while sex refers to biological differences. Gender is, by definition, socially constructed. No one imagines that gender has no connection to biology, or that biological analysis is forbidden in gender studies courses. Naturally, the NAS never bothers to talk to any faculty who teach at Bowdoin, or any students who have taken these courses, to find out if biology is actually banned in gender studies classes.
The NAS seems to call for the total abolition of gender studies, black studies, gay and lesbian studies, Latin American studies, and all other studies programs that might be linked to identity: “Courses listed in the studies programs now comprise approximately 18 percent of the curriculum, but that is the tip of the iceberg. Eighteen percent of the curriculum may seem a small figure, but not if the proper percent is zero.” Is the proper percent zero? That appears to be what the NAS thinks, but it’s afraid to actually make an argument for wiping out entire fields of study and firing their faculty for purely political reasons. All the NAS can do is make ridiculous claims such as, “’Diversity’ is a disguised form of racism.”
The NAS has a simple, dogmatic belief that all survey courses are always better than specialized courses, which inspires their hatred against Bowdoin’s lack of required survey courses. (Ironically, the NAS concludes by demanding a class on Edmund Spenser, which is probably more specialized than any of the classes it attacks for being too specialized.) Every time the NAS lists all of the classes being taught at Bowdoin in order to denounce a handful of them based solely on the titles, all I can think of is how wonderful these classes sound.
Most people, including most conservatives, will read this report and think to themselves, “I wish I could be a student at Bowdoin. I wish I could be a professor at Bowdoin.” The incredible resources, small classes, and intellectual environment would strike anyone as a blessing, unless you viewed it purely as a question of whether your ideological position was the winner among most students and faculty.
The NAS condemns Mills (and Bowdoin) for “moral relativism,” and then denounces them whenever they seem to take a position on anything. The NAS has a confusing double standard. It attacks Bowdoin for failing to tell students what classes to take and not to have sex, but then it condemns Bowdoin’s administration for promoting environmentalism and insults President Mills for publicly supporting gay marriage: “Mills’s partisan letter was a misuse of his office and a conspicuous failure to model critical thinking.” The NAS wants to limit student and faculty freedom, but only if it moves the college in a conservative direction. A college like Bowdoin, which offers classes in the classics, Greek, and Latin despite a notable lack of student interest, still doesn’t satisfy the NAS.
There are many vague complaints about intellectual bias in this report, but no evidence of any discrimination against conservatives. Even the NAS admits that the lack of conservatives in academia may not be the result of any hiring bias: “we acknowledge that finding conservatives is not easy,… because earlier in their lives conservatives are discouraged from becoming academics.”
Where is the oppression of conservatives at Bowdoin? The prime example offered by the NAS report is a complaint by a co-chair of the College Republicans, who reports that at his table during a student activities fair, a student called him “a bigot for not supporting gay marriage” and he complained, “It was acceptable for them to heckle me because I’m a Republican.” First of all, speaking to someone at a table is not heckling. Second, it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to criticize the views of others. Third, he is a bigot for opposing gay marriage.
If the fragile feelings of conservatives must be so protected that even a political activist sitting at a table inviting people to converse cannot be criticized, what kind of college experience does the NAS want? A college where no one openly criticizes anyone else’s views for fear of silencing them?
In typical condescending fashion, the NAS report treats all liberal students at Bowdoin as the mindless puppets of a vast left-wing conspiracy: “But in every area of student culture we examined we found that the administration exercised a strong and typically dominating influence.”
After a student challenged the rich guy Klingenstein at a campus forum for claiming Bowdoin graduates were ignorant, the NAS report attacks the student: “What he lacked was the humility needed to comprehend the limits of his knowledge. This student might have acquired that humility had he taken a college-level survey course on American political (or military, diplomatic, or intellectual) history. Such a course would have drawn attention to large gaps in his understanding. But unfortunately for him, Bowdoin does not offer such courses.” The notion that survey courses create humility in students is absurd. There’s not the slightest evidence to support this bizarre idea based upon a belief that the purpose of college is to create feelings of humility.
The NAS report recounts this incident again: “’Tell me what it is I don’t know.’ That was the challenge laid down by a Bowdoin student, May 16, 2011. This report is our answer.” Sadly, the NAS never answers the question. What exactly do Bowdoin students fail to learn? The NAS made no attempt to survey or interview students about what they learn in the classroom, and this student appears to be the only liberal on campus they ever reported speaking to. Instead of answering the student, the NAS insults him for lacking “humility.”
In the final paragraph of its report, the NAS writes:
What does Bowdoin not teach? Intellectual modesty. Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A course on Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course on the American Revolution. The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public speaking. Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture.
This incoherent mish-mash of mostly mindless complaints embodies what’s wrong with the NAS report. When “intellectual modesty” (whatever the hell that means) is your top priority, it shows how little substance the NAS is standing on. Of course, Bowdoin does promote critical thinking, virtue, wisdom, and culture, but because it’s not a narrow conservative definition of these ideas, the NAS can’t see anything good about the college.
The NAS came into this report already believing this statement, and hardly bothered to even try to find any evidence that it was right and something is wrong with Bowdoin. It is striking that a 359-report can have so little evidence to prove its fundamental claims of a vast conspiracy against conservatives in higher education.