Going back centuries, a liberal arts education consisted of studies "worthy of a free man, those studies by which we attain and practicce virtue and wisdom." The Greeks divided liberal arts into two forms. The Trivium aimed to develop excellence in expression. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric taught the student to write or speak clearly, coherently, and persuasively. Other subjects considered necessary for the advancement of the free individual were arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry.
Medieval and Renaissance scholars fine tuned the formula. The Italian teacher Petrus Paulus Vergerius in 1404 laid out a revised liberal arts curriculum. Free men needed to master history, moral philosophy, and literature. Techniques of rhetoric articulated by Aristotle required examples and moral truths to succeed at persuasion. The three added subjects helped the student to learn about traditions, ideas, and human nature.
Liberal education was meant to free the mind for free inquiry and debate and "to discern fallacy from truth in discussion." Has American liberal arts education lived up to that lofty standard?
Over a half century ago, William Buckley answered that question. In God and Man At Yale, he wrote that "if the recent Yale graduate, who exposed himself to Yale economics during his undergraduate years, exhibits enterprise, self-reliance, and independence, it is only because he has turned his back upon his teachers and texts." Studies of economics emerged in the modern period. They certainly belong in the pantheon of liberal studies since understanding how to create and keep wealth adds to the security and liberty of the individual. Yet economics classes still, as in Buckley's day, teach that only collectivism is just and that individual wants are avarice.
The NAS study, which runs over 350 pages, indicates that the situation has degenerated even further over the past 50 years.
A true liberal arts education is like a flower garden. Stimulating arrangements have a variety of species with different shapes, sizes, and colors. Who wants a large garden with all the same type and color? Ideologically speaking, Bowdoin's faculty, although they may physically look different, are monotonously similar. The study reports that of the 182 professors and instructors, four may be considered conservative.
Students who experience a variety of ideologies, liberal, conservative, leftist, libertarian, will be better suited to meet an intellectually diverse world. An atmosphere with varieties of thought challenges them to think logically about their beliefs. Then it encourages them to argue in defense of their ideals.
Bowdoin fails in this most basic area. Professor Henry Laurence in 2004 wrote that Bowdoin liberals and leftists understand conservative ideals and do a fine job in covering them. Then he showed his ability to tolerate dissenting opinions by saying those who disagreed were "intellectually bankrupt, professionally insulting and, fortunately, wildly inaccurate." He then compared ideological differences to being a fan of either the Yankees or the Red Sox.
Understanding ideological differences is one thing. Fairly representing them is quite another.
But if the differences are so minute, why not hire more professors of different worldviews? Professor Marc Hetherington attributed it to conservatives being less likely to pursue advanced degrees. Fair enough. But instead of describing the logical, interest-based reasons for this, he simply says that conservatives do not "place the same emphasis on the accumulation of knowledge [as] liberals do." Which is interesting considering the growing ubiquity of conservative and libertarian reference to philosophy and history to battle liberal talking points handed out as if inscribed on holy tablets.
Again, a defender of Bowdoin's tolerance defaults to prejudice instead of evidence.
NAS also describes the sparse requirements to take what used to be considered foundation courses in history, economics, and other needed subjects. A curriculum once designed to liberate the mind now is used to instill a monotonous languor. Such is the case across much of the landscape of higher education.
Individuals do not need to be carried off by the evil wind of conformity. No one has yet memory holed the campus libraries or sites online with full text files of great works. In the early Middle Ages, the word university referred to any realm where learning takes place. With the help of great thinkers from before and now, break through the peculiar brand of left wing sameness of thought and actually train your own free mind.