Yesterday on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh read a Wall Street Journal article summarizing the National Association of Scholars (NAS) study about Bowdoin, and quoted the finding that Bowdoin doesn’t require history majors to take an American history class.
So a history major at Bowdoin College is taught about the intrinsic discrimination against blacks, women, gays, lesbians, transgender, bisexuals. That’s all they are taught. A history major coming out of Bowdoin College is not taught for one minute about the American founding. There is not one moment of traditional American history taught, and this is just the history department. What’s taught is how immoral and unjust America has been since its founding and how its founding featured institutional racism, segregation, sexism, homophobia, and all that.
The NAS Report doesn’t say a single word about what is actually taught in Bowdoin’s history classes, so Limbaugh’s claim that history majors are “not taught for one minute about the American founding” is simply a lie.
NAS president Peter Wood wrote to me in response to my questions about Limbaugh’s comments that Limbaugh “blurred a couple of points. A history major at Bowdoin CAN graduate without taking ‘one minute’ of formal coursework on the American founding. History majors are not required to take any American history.”
But, Wood added, “American history courses are, of course, offered. Whether it is accurate to say ‘traditional American history’ is not taught depends, of course, on what weight to give the word ‘traditional.’ I’d say that the generalization is fairly accurate in the sense that the Bowdoin History Department is thoroughly imbued with the spirit and the practice of teaching social history, which is conceived of as a repudiation of the methods and aims of traditional history.”
I think Wood is wrong, because even in history courses taught with an emphasis on social history, some traditional history is still taught. Limbaugh’s assertion of “not one moment” is simply unsupported by the facts.
Limbaugh made a very common intellectual error: the assumption that students don’t learn something unless it’s required. Unfortunately, it’s the same error made by the NAS itself, in calling its report, “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” But nothing in the report actually analyzes what goes on in Bowdoin’s classes, because the NAS didn’t study any of that. Instead, they looked at the titles of classes taught, and then imagined, like Limbaugh, that they could use their psychic powers to assume what was taught and how it was taught.
Alex Williams, a recent Bowdoin graduate, wrote a critique of the accuracy of the NAS study (pdf) in which he noted that while he was a student at Bowdoin, the history classes taught included HIST 233c (American Society in the New Nation, 1763–1840) and HIST 274c (The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: The History of the American Revolution). Even without the class devoted solely to the American Revolution, Limbaugh’s “not taught for one minute about the American founding” would be a lie. And the NAS makes no such claim.
Because Bowdoin tends not to require classes, it’s easy to smear the college by denouncing them for failing to require a certain course. But in reality, Bowdoin’s approach is a wise one. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I avoided the survey courses beloved by the NAS like the plague, and sought out the kind of small specialized seminars taught at Bowdoin. The survey classes were taught in large lecture halls with uninterested students and frustrated professors, they were dumbed down and largely repeated the same failed survey classes everyone took in high school and elementary school. Bowdoin shouldn’t be condemned for being one of the rare colleges to liberate its students from the stupidity of survey courses; they should be imitated as a model for what higher education could be.
Now, the students at Bowdoin College are required to take a year-long seminar as freshmen. They get to choose from 37 different offerings, such as “Affirmative Action in US Society,” or “the Fictions of Freedom,” or “Racism,” or “Queer Gardens,” or “the Sexual Life of Colonialism,” or “the Modern Western Prostitutes.” They have to take one of those courses, as a seminar, but they’re not taught anything about the American founding other than it was racist and immoral.
Actually, among the first-year seminars at Bowdoin were classes with titles such as “Political Leadership,” “Human Being and Citizen,” and “Power and Participation in American Politics.” Attacking the first-year seminars at Bowdoin, the NAS admits, “Some of these courses are solid,” but it condemns some of them for being too specialized, based strictly on the title and a vague description. However, even the NAS would never make the absurd that Bowdoin students are “not taught anything about the American founding…” Peter Wood told me, “I think he is wrong that none of them teach anything about the American founding.”
Limbaugh also tried to claim that his misleading attacks on Bowdoin College reflect all of higher education: “People are going to say, ‘Whoa, that’s unbelievable!’ It’s not the only place. You think it’s the only college?”
Limbaugh blames this kind of education for Obama’s election and the destruction of America as we know it: “It has been happening every day for tens of years. Slowly creeping toward the left’s utopia.” This is the great conspiracy imagined by the far right, and it explains their anti-intellectual hatred of education.
2019-20 Fellow, University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors' AcademeBlog.org, and the editor of the Illinois AAUP's Illinois Academe. He has a Ph.D. in higher education from Illinois State University, and is the author of eight books, including "The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education" (Duke University Press), "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies" (Paradigm Publishers), and "President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire" (OR Books).