Wed, Apr 23, 2014 ●
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The Universal Notebook: The right-wing attack on Bowdoin College

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: The right-wing attack on Bowdoin College

So a propaganda organization funded by an ultra-right-wing billionaire has determined that Bowdoin College is too liberal for its tastes.

That’s news?

It is, according to ultra-right-wing Bowdoin grad and retired Portland Press Herald editor M.D. Harmon, who has been dining out on the National Association of Scholars’ “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” report in his column for several weeks.

The National Association of Scholars, of course, is not a national association of scholars at all. It has no members. It’s just a bunch of conservative mercenaries in the culture wars, chasing a bunch of Mellon money with which to attack multiculturalism, affirmative action, climate change and just about anything else that challenges its smug, Western, white-male view of the world.

Why would NAS write a 360-page report on Bowdoin College?

For the thoroughly unprofessional reason that NAS board member Thomas Klingenstein, who financed the report, ran into Bowdoin President Barry Mills on a golf course a few years ago and Mills took exception to the conservative investor’s characterization of the college.

Worse, Mills quoted Klingenstein (without naming him) in his 2010 convocation address as saying, “I would never support Bowdoin; you are a ridiculous liberal school that brings all the wrong students to campus for all the wrong reasons."

In the NAS report, Klingenstein writes “some will also ask whether this report is simply my vendetta against President Barry Mills because I took offense at remarks he made at his 2010 convocation address.”

Well, yuh, Bud, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell – and you paid for the nuts.

The report is a hatchet job from beginning to end. It’s dressed up in academic garb to look like scholarship, but it’s actually just garbage.

Is Bowdoin liberal? Of course, it is. So are just about all other respected institutions of higher learning you can name – Bates, Colby, Amherst, Middlebury, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Williams.

The fact that most quality liberal arts colleges embrace a more inclusive world view than the sclerotic “scholars” of NAS can tolerate leads them to charge that the academic world, in this case Bowdoin, is intolerant of conservative thought. The truth is that what liberal institutions and individuals can’t tolerate is intolerance.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being blinded by the fact that my father is Bowdoin graduate and my daughter Tess graduates next month, I asked Bowdoin Professor Christian Potholm '62, Maine’s leading Republican pollster and political consultant, what he thought of the NAS critique.

"I have been associated with Bowdoin College for over 50 years as student, alumnus and professor,” Potholm replied. “At no time during that period has Bowdoin ever been more vibrant, more interesting, or provided a more holistic and finer education.”

Good enough for me, M.D.

At the heart of NAS attack is the fact that Bowdoin College is an institution devoted to “The Common Good.” That is a concept the nasty new conservatives of the far right simply cannot abide. There is no common good in their world, only self-interest and greed.

By promoting the Common Good, Bowdoin simply encourages its students and graduates to use their educations and talents in service of humanity, to do what they can to make the world a better place for all living beings. (Wow, Mr. K, what a radical idea!)

The concept of the Common Good at Bowdoin originated in an 1802 speech by President Joseph McKeen, who said that “literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”

“It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner,” McKeen continued, “but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education, and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good."

To that end, Bowdoin operates the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good to coordinate and encourage student volunteerism and community service. Isn’t that a good thing? Apparently, the scholars of NAS think not. Bowdoin’s concept of the Common Good is far too secular for them.

“McKeen’s idea of the Common Good,” they write, “was that students who were committed to the pursuit of virtue would mature as Christians who would dedicate their public lives to helping build the state of Maine and the young American nation.”

The fact that a handful of hand-fed hacks decided to devote 360 pages to attacking Bowdoin is ultimately a feather in the college’s cap. Obviously, a good liberal arts education represents a serious threat to the old order of privilege and prejudice so vigorously defended by the narrow-minded scholars of NAS.