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Sunday, April 07, 2013

What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students

Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine is a highly-regarded liberal arts college—one of the oldest in the country. Bowdoin is the alma mater of great writers (Hawthorne, Longfellow), war heroes (Joshua Chamberlain) and a U.S. president (Franklin Pierce). But Bowdoin is also a before and after story. Before 1969, it was a college with strong intellectual traditions, a core curriculum, and a commitment to Western Civilization. But after 1969, it abolished all general education requirements and turned from what it called “collegiate” education to what its president at the time called “liberating” education. Out went the old standards and in came a new focus on race, class, gender, and the environment. Out went the old style of scholarly generalists as teachers and in came the new style of research specialists as faculty members. The new Bowdoin dedicated itself to the achievement of social justice and to reshaping America in the image of progressive politics. Bowdoin today is the direct heir of these major shifts. Bowdoin claims that these changes have transformed the college into an educational experience which is far superior to its older model. According to Bowdoin, the education it offers in 2012-2013 is the best education that it has ever offered. The National Association of Scholars tests these claims by thoroughly examining what Bowdoin teaches, through its formal curriculum, student life, and the relationships between students and faculty members.

From the report:

This report shows that Bowdoin’s curriculum is frequently incoherent and trivial. One course that was ultimately cancelled because of lack of student interest was entitled “Queer Gardens,” a survey of the horticultural achievements of “gay and lesbian gardeners” and a rereading of literary works on gardens from a “queer” perspective. Aside from being a course that, in all likelihood, neither cultivates the principles of critical thinking, nor possesses a canonical set of texts to explain the human experience, it sounds altogether trivial.

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