Blog Post

Bowdoin under attack

The New Criterion and the National Association of Scholars are at it again.

A partner of my mother's loves to send out links to right-wing anti-educational rants. The latest is part of what seems to be a concerted attack on Bowdoin College. "The case of Bowdoin College," we learn, "paints a devastating portrait of the current state of college education." It's a portrait painted by the National Association of Scholars, and I'd say it's more like a mirror reflecting how shockingly low their standards of scholarship are.

Here's an example of The New Criterion's and the NAS's way with truth.  The New Criterion says, based on the NAS report, that

Out of a faculty of nearly two hundred, Bowdoin counts only four or five conservative professors. One-hundred percent of faculty donations in the 2012 election went to support President Obama. One-hundred percent.

Goodness! Nearly two hundred people, and one hundred percent of faculty donations went to President Obama. Wow!  You might be forgiven for thinking that the numbers in the two sentences had something to do with each other. I remember when the Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson was hitting .500! (Before the designated hitter rule up and destroyed the American League. That change painted a devastating portrait of the state of MLB.) Because in the first game of the season, he was up four times and got two hits. (A home run, iirc; I was listening to the game on my little transistor radio while walking the dog—for $5.00 / week—of the housebound woman I now only remember as "the prejudiced lady," since whenever I saw her she would rant against the minorities destroying New York. She would have loved The New Criterion.) Batting .500!

But here's what I can report, through following the helpful links in the NAS paper, which is apparently seeking though seemingly scrupulous citations to display its own bona fides while discouraging the work of fact checking what they say (1,195 footnotes! Angus Fletcher's got competition!).  You know how many people contributed to Obama? Ten.

You see what they're doing? They're putting a number in your mind—200—and then another number—100%—and they're making you think that it's appalling that out of the 200 there was 100% contribution to Obama. The NAS, which also fails to mention that we're talking about ten people, puts it this way: "the one-sidedness of the destination of the contributions is remarkable" (p. 349). Yes, and so was Fritz Peterson's batting average.

Here's a more accurate way of putting it. There are nearly two hundred faculty members at Bowdoin, and maybe 5% donated money to support President Obama.  Five percent. Maybe.  Because the article they cite doesn't say that the ten donations were from faculty.  They were from Bowdoin college employees.  Who, maybe, didn't want federal funding cut from their employers? Because who would be the first to go in a budget cut?  I know the answer, having been on a committee at Brandeis to cut staff (and I am very proud to say, having succeeded in saving some staff jobs).  The first to go are: Bottle washers in labs.  Dining staff.  Janitors.  Gardeners.  Maybe, ill-compensated though they were, part of the 47% as most of them are, they felt more urgency in seeing Obama re-elected than tenured faculty did.  Maybe not, but we don't know.

But you know what we do know? Not from the NAS or The New Criterion but from the article they cite from the Bowdoin student newspaper? Bowdoin staff also donated to Republican candidates.  Just not Romney.

Maybe they were donating to Republicans who valued higher education? Anyhow, those contributions contradict the line the NAS and The New Criterion, which might explain the artful way the NAS and The New Criterion put it: contributions to Obama, not contributions to Democratic candidates. Because then they'd have to acknowledge the contributions to Republican candidates as well. Remember, too, that Obama was looking for small grass-roots contributions, and had an extraordinary outreach organization for soliciting those contributions, whereas Romney was looking for a smaller number of bigger contributions, and wasn't doing much soliciting from small contributors.

At any rate, the ten staff members of Bowdoin who contributed to Obama are statistically insignificant. It's significant for those ten people, sure. But it doesn't say very much about (or for, I must say) the nearly two hundred faculty members who didn't contribute to anyone. 

Then consider this from The New Criterion article: "[The NAS report] quotes a student who was ridiculed by his professor on the first day of class 'for proclaiming that I was taking his class because 'I love America.’” A student was ridiculed... says the student.  To me it sounded just a little bizarre that an American student (it transpires) taking a class in the U.S. would say that he took the class because he loved America. A little Anytus-like (mutatis mutandis) and you know where Anytus's outrage at having his pieties challenged brought Socrates. What class was this? I wondered. I could see someone saying this in a class on baseball, for example. I'd say it too! Or American popular culture, maybe, or even a class on America's contribution to world democracy or enlightenment ideals or something. It would still be a little naive, but maybe winning.

The class turned out to be a class in 19th century American History.  Okay, maybe he could have meant that he loved what Lincoln did. Or that he loved American history (I do. I also love America, to which my family came as desperate refugees and where they were accepted as no place else on Earth would have.)

But it turns out there's more mendacity here. The New Criterion, recall, says the NAS report "quotes a student who was ridiculed by his professor on the first day of class 'for proclaiming that I was taking his class because "I love America." ' " Here's a fuller quotation, not in the NAS report, but on the website to which they link, which is the Bowdoin student newspaper.  In the comments section the student airs a number of complaints: complaints that

when I took Prof. Rael's United States History in the 19th century course, he ridiculed me, on the very first day of classes, for proclaiming that I was taking his class because "I love America", that he routinely concluded class session by arguing with me over Bush Era policies and Guantanamo Bay (which the leftist Messiah has interestingly kept open), and that he is so often found ejaculating political opinions on to the pages of the Orient.

Classy guy, right?

So his assertion that he was ridiculed, which is all we have (neither The New Criterion nor the NAS actually did any actual reporting) turns into The New Criterion's identifying him by a putatively factual description: "a student who was ridiculed," as though it was an established fact that he'd been ridiculed and the NAS went and found him to ask why.

But maybe a student who—what?—ridicules (is the word that comes to mind) the President of the United States as "the leftist Messiah" and describes his teacher's op-eds as ejaculations onto the pages of the student newspaper is someone whose language isn't entirely... judicious. There were other students in the class. Someone could have asked them. No one did. And then, The New Criterion complains:

On October 25, 2012, on the eve of a state referendum in Maine, President Mills published a letter in the student newspaper urging his charges to vote in favor of gay marriage. Was that appropriate behavior for a college president?

Okay, leave aside the fact that he didn't publish it: the student newspaper did. Leave aside that on the evidence (including dozens of footnotes relying on the factual accuracy of information contained therein by the NAS report) The Bowdoin Orient doesn't seem to follow The New Criterion's practice of being a house organ for the views of the most senior person in the house.  The newspaper published a letter in which Mills took care to say: "I set forth my views as a private citizen and a resident of Brunswick, Maine." The NAS has the courtesy to mention this, but The New Criterion doesn't.

Maybe The New Criterion is right that he shouldn't have sent that letter to the school newspaper. But consider a hypothetical. Say a college president wrote a letter to a student newspaper saying that as a private citizen and resident of the state he was urging a no vote on a ballot initiative which if passed would require the state to divest from any companies doing business with Israel.  Would it be The New Criterion's view that this was inappropriate behavior?  Of course not.

The end of The New Criterion article makes it clear what their agenda is.  They take great schadenfreudlge glee at the potential destruction of higher education as the MOOC tsunami gives us our comeuppance.  No doubt it will be a pleasure to them to see these fairly liberal establishments fail, populated as they are by idealists who didn't follow the path of highest expected compensation.  But if they're right, it'll be a disaster for our culture.  Online education, as currently promoted by corporate-style and profit-seeking entrepreneurs, risks destroying something precious and valuable—a sense of intellectual culture for its own sake—and the self-serving non-profit merchants of indignation like The New Criterion and the NAS, publishing articles like this to please their conservative donors (people like my mother's colleague, for example) will bear their share of responsibility for being the token intellectuals, the designated hitters, of the anti-intellectual team.

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).