Two weeks ago, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a 359-page report criticizing the academics and identity politics of Bowdoin College. The report, commissioned and funded by a potential donor named Thomas Klingenstein, was a scathing attack on Bowdoin’s left-leaning tendencies. One of the report’s many criticisms was that the college places too much emphasis on racial diversity instead of fostering ideological diversity.
It is important to consider some of the underlying factors that likely influenced some of the report’s findings. First of all, Klingenstein himself funded the approximately $300,000 cost of the report. It is not entirely surprising then, that its findings were largely in line with its commissioner’s preexisting opinions. Secondly, Klingenstein is neither a Bowdoin student nor an alumnus of the college. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — while the report’s main criticism of the Bowdoin community was of its uniformity of ideology and opinion, the report itself is similarly guilty of one-sidedness. Throughout the report, conservative ideology stands in place of real neutrality. Overall, the integrity of the report’s findings should be subject to scrutiny.
However, regardless of whether or not we agree with the report’s findings and its overall validity, one thing is clear: the criticisms waged against Bowdoin by Klingenstein and the NAS could have just as easily been directed toward Middlebury or any of our peer institutions. Klingenstein scoffs at Bowdoin’s course offerings, focusing on classes with names like “Queer Gardens.” Upon glancing at a Middlebury course catalog, we wonder how would he characterize the classes offered here — “White People” or “Body and Earth,” for example? In this way, the report reads like an attack on a liberal arts education in general. Klingenstein overlooks a core facet of the liberal arts education: the importance of seeing issues from multiple perspectives. By doing so, he fails to practice the open-mindedness that he preaches.
If Middlebury had been the subject of such an attack, how would we react? Would we denounce Klingenstein simply as a spiteful guy who — by the way — happened to graduate from Williams? Would we question the validity of the report’s findings? Most likely we would, and with good reason. However, results aside, the main question raised by the report — what does diversity on a college campus really mean? — is an important one.
Klingenstein’s primary criticism of diversity at Bowdoin is that it focuses too much on racial and ethnic differences and — by virtue of the College’s overwhelmingly liberal student body and faculty — overlooks diversity of opinion and ideology. One could point to a similar situation at Middlebury. The Admissions Office is quick to tout the fact that the College has seen an increasing number of applications from students of color. In doing so, the College is responding to market demands for diversity, albeit a specific type of diversity. Racial diversity can serve as a tangible selling point for a college, whereas diversity of thought is less quantifiable and is, therefore, less marketable.
Is, as Klingenstein asserts, the dearth of ideological diversity at schools like Bowdoin and Middlebury necessarily a bad thing? The likely answer is that it depends. If our professors continually exhibit liberal bias in the classroom and quell the possibility of real debate and dialogue, than yes — this seems like a bad thing.
But most Middlebury and Bowdoin professors are smarter than that. A good professor will open students up to all sides of an argument, educating them in a way that will allow them to form their own opinions, be they liberal, conservative or somewhere in between.
It is also up to students to ensure that Middlebury’s liberal bent does not act as a hindrance on our education. In fact, labeling opinions merely “liberal” or “conservative” often overlooks the important nuances of our convictions.
These steps are necessary because while students and professors can foster an environment where a diversity of opinion is welcomed, there may be little that Middlebury or Bowdoin as a whole can do to actively increase ideological diversity on campus. Does Klingenstein believe that admissions officers should ascertain an applicant’s political affiliation before offering admission? Most of us are 17 or 18 years old when we’re applying to college — hopefully our political views are not completely unwavering before we’ve even graduated high school.
In addition, Middlebury is self-selecting, both for students and for faculty. The College has a liberal reputation, and therefore often draws those who hold left-leaning views. It seems that, in Klingenstein’s view, schools like Middlebury and Bowdoin have a duty to counteract this self-selecting feedback loop. This may be an unrealistic responsibility to place on a college.
Is it possible to expand Middlebury’s outreach in order to encompass a more diverse (in multiple senses of the word) student body without abandoning the College’s identity? Hopefully it is. One way to start is to realize the many forms that diversity can take. Diversity is more than skin deep, and not all of its forms can be immediately recognized or quantified. Take, for example, the diversity of interests and passions held by Middlebury students, as the student symposium this Friday will likely make clear.
The questions that Klingenstein poses are important ones to answer, but the correct way to answer them is by assessing both sides of the situation with an open mind and by accepting the possibility of all viewpoints. The NAS report failed to accept this possibility.