Bowdoin requires all freshmen to take a first-year seminar, which is supposed to provide the gateway to the "critical thinking" skills the college purports to value. Among the 35 courses from which students must pick, easily half are either frivolous or, worse, tendentious exercises in identity politics. The titles alone tell the story: "Fan Fiction and Cult Classics," "Beyond Pocahontas: Native American Stereotypes," "Racism," "Fictions of Freedom," "Sexual Life of Colonialism," "Prostitutes in Modern Western Culture" and "Queer Gardens," to name a few. The latter course "examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces." One can only infer that the college deems such knowledge a necessary building block to every student's intellectual development.
Wood and Toscano do more than catalogue the obvious excesses of the modern academy, however. Wood brings his training as an anthropologist to the examination of campus life and culture, painstakingly researching the college's records, including minutes of academic meetings, to reveal how Bowdoin's mission changed over the past 40 years. In a series of appendices and within the actual report, the authors document the decision-making process that has transformed Bowdoin into the school it is today.
The study also looks at the college's implicit promotion of sexual promiscuity and the "hook-up" culture among students, which begins during first-year orientation. A play called "Speak About It," which all incoming students must attend, includes what its authors say are autobiographical sketches from current and former Bowdoin students. The play depicts graphic on-stage sexual encounters between heterosexual and gay couples -- complete with simulated orgasms. Paradoxically, the Bowdoin community also seems obsessed with preventing sexual assault, which administrators seem to believe is rampant on campus despite the low incidence of reporting alleged attacks.
If Bowdoin were unique in its abandonment of traditional liberal education, this study might be of no more than passing interest. What the authors found at Bowdoin, however, exists to some degree at many if not most elite colleges and universities. This study deserves widespread dissemination and discussion -- first among Bowdoin's alumni, donors and the parents of current and potential students. But anyone interested in the future of higher education in America should take note.
Our colleges and universities shape the next generation of leaders and citizens, for better or worse. And the country's most elite schools will influence disproportionately who we become as a nation and a people in the future. What has happened to Bowdoin College should matter to all of us.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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