Wood reflects on political agendas in the liberal arts

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, visited the College last Friday to give a lecture titled “The Myth of Diversity.” Sponsored by the Williams Debate Club, Wood discussed the findings of his in-depth study “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” and the current intellectual culture in liberal arts education.

“What Does Bowdoin Teach?” is a study Wood and his colleague Michael Toscano published on April 3. It follows the highly regarded college through its ideological evolution over time. “I wanted to see if I could understand liberal arts education the way an anthropologist studies a small scale society,” Wood said. According to Wood and Toscano’s study, Bowdoin began its institutional career interested in broad academic engagement. However, in 1969 – what Wood called “an inflection point in Bowdoin’s history” – new college president Roger Howell Jr. communicated a different vision for the college. Howell eliminated academic requirements at Bowdoin, made SATs an optional submission for admission, admitted women and asserted that “coherence in education would emerge from students’ interests” and a “curriculum of liberation.” According to Wood, “the idea that college existed to encourage character was replaced by the idea [that] it was a place for exploration.”

Wood pointed to this past emphasis on student autonomy as a transformative force at Bowdoin. Following the elimination of academic requirements, faculty noticed students “began to take courses they found easiest” and attempted to “claw back to some academic standards.” However, because the college had focused on recruiting “faculty members who were more specialists than generalists” since the presidency of James H. Cole and thus was unable to cobble together a sequence of core classes, Wood posits that the faculty was more reluctant to force general educational courses on students “who had been promised freedom.” It was at this time that Bowdoin and its peer institutions begin to emphasize critical thinking as the goal of education, “a term that generally had no substance to it,” Wood said.

Wood contextualized Bowdoin’s growing emphasis on student autonomy in the liberal political allegiances associated with college, particularly with its faculty. In his six-month study, Wood found “a set of traceable consequences from the type of faculty Bowdoin has built up over the years,” a faculty that prevents the college from projecting “a sense of ideological balance.” In Wood’s view, these liberalizing currents have served to stifle true intellectual exchange and curiosity. He pointed to the focuses on diversity and sustainability as examples of institutional bias. “Anything else other than the endorsement of diversity is an affiliation with white male patriarchy,” Wood said. “I am someone who worries about the integrity of academic and intellectual inquiry. College is a place where open-minded vigorous conversation should take place.”

Wood saw these institutional emphases on diversity and sustainability as an “offense to reason” because “we cannot decide which issues are closed to debate.” According to Wood, diversity “is a relatively new idea in the American lexicon” that was popularized by the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Bakke v. University of California. With this decision concerning affirmative action policies, diversity became a “safer justification for racial preference.” Because diversity became defined as “tagging yourself by your main group characteristic,” Wood argued, “Diversity calls to remind [people] that the group they belong to was victimized in the past,” in a way that demands “others should feel guilty about that.” Much in the same way, Wood contended that sustainability has become a social justice buzzword. “The sustainability movement must be distinguished from the environmentalist movement,” because the former is concerned with construing “capitalist free markets [as] a major component in destroying the environment,” and articulating “everything that is wrong with the oppressive West.” Wood expressed the opinion that diversity and sustainability have been invoked on college campuses in a way that defies criticism or analysis of how or why they politicize those issues.

“It’s not an attack on the college,  and it’s not an attack on liberal arts,” Wood stressed. “Everything we say about Bowdoin is what Bowdoin says about itself. You learn a lot about a community by what it agonizes over.”

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