The Case of Bowdoin College

New Criterion, May 2013 | Go to article overview

The Case of Bowdoin College


The fate of higher education has been a central concern of The New Criterion since our first issue rolled off the press in September 1982. As we noted at the time, what had happened to our colleges and universities did not take place in a vacuum. The revolution in academia was part of a much larger cultural deformation. That deformation was a multifaceted, conceptually slippery phenomenon, or set of phenomena, difficult of definition. But it has long since answered to a familiar epithet: "The Sixties."

The point is that "The Sixties," a marker that is as much existential as it is chronological, didn't happen just in the Sixties. It is still with us. The process of institutionalization, through which the jagged novelties of that malevolently giddy decade were domesticated, drained the element of shock but not the toxicity from its astonishing innovations. Habituation is not the same as inoculation. The passage of time has deposited its reassuring glaze of nostalgia. But the spiritual detonations of that period have fatefully altered many basic assumptions about who we are and how we ought to conduct ourselves in our shared lives together. Which is to say that, whatever complacencies the passage of time have nurtured, "The Sixties" pertains to our present situation, circa 2013, just as much as it did to the bell-bottomed, acid-dropping, free-love-touting agitators of the Woodstock generation. Those formative years may have supplied the crucible in which the habits and values of "The Sixties" took shape. It is a shape that has deeply impressed itself on the character of our culture, not least our academic culture.

The New Criterion has regularly reported on the cultural charnel-house-cum-sanctimonious-grievance-factory that is contemporary academia. Allan Bloom, in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, famously analyzed a key feature of the new dispensation: the attitude, at once moral and mental ("intellectual" is not quite the right word), of spurious "openness." "Openness" Bloom wrote, "used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reasons power." Hence the great irony that attends the ethic of openness: "What is advertised as a great opening is a great closing." Liberated from the tutelage of truth, emancipated from the stem strictures of reason, openness degenerates, first, to indifference before mutating into a species of fanaticism. Witness the academic cult of "diversity." The scare quotes are necessary because there are few environments less diverse than contemporary academia. "Diversity" is the universal shibboleth on college campuses. A stultifying conformity is the order of the day. Large is the number of things you cannot say at most colleges and universities today, narrow the range of permissible opinion about all manner of political, intellectual, and moral matters.

The mildly deprecatory image of academia as an "ivory tower," as a place apart from the hurly-burly of society at large, no longer applies. Or, rather, it applies, but with a twist. Academia is still a protected oasis--you can gauge just how protected by checking the astonishing price tag--but its signature purpose is no longer to pursue the scholarly life, to preserve and transmit to the next generation the riches of our cultural inheritance. On the contrary, colleges and universities have increasingly been subjugated to a leftist ideological agenda bent on dismantling that tradition. Anyone who speaks of "the riches of our cultural inheritance" would be shouted down as a reactionary whose views were not worth listening to. In the academy these days, the Marxist conspires with "green" warriors to destroy capitalism and the market economy, the feminist wages war on patriarchy, and the post-colonialist seeks to undermine the vestiges of Western imperialism wherever they are found, which turns out to be pretty much everywhere. Meanwhile partisans of various exotic sexual subcultures want to major in their sex lives. …

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