Bowdoin Dilemma in WW2: The Battle for Critical Thinking

Posted by on Apr 15, 2013 in 1940s Life, All Blog Posts, Bowdoin College, WW2 | 1 comment

In 1942 liberal arts education at Bowdoin College cultivated critical thinking, tolerance for opposing views, and moral values vital to society, democracy, and America as a nation.

The September Commencement of 1942 graduated sixteen “Accelerated Seniors” at Bowdoin College. Three degrees were conferred in absentia for the men already in the service. That left only thirteen graduates in attendance. It was a small commencement, the first time in Bowdoin’s history the ceremony was moved to the chapel.

1st “Accelerated Class” of Bowdoin
September 1942

One of the oldest features of Bowdoin commencements was missing, the undergraduate speakers. In the “swift and streamlined” days, the undergraduate oratory was sacrificed. Professor Coffin described it this way, “Undergraduate orations have never remade the world, but they have meant a good deal to the class and to the men who delivered them. It would be too bad to have any war end a tradition as old as the college. It will be a sad day if, after the war, Bowdoin gives up having the students themselves furnish the heart of the celebration and hires some distinguished speaker to serve as that vital organ, as most colleges do nowadays.”

Bowdoin College was turned upside down during World War Two. In its support of the war effort, Bowdoin faced a dilemma. How do you maintain a liberal arts institution and support for “liberal” education against extreme pressures that necessitate bare bones pragmatic courses of accelerated vocational training? It might seem that Yankees are a natural choice for embracing the practical. No so. Not for Bowdoin. Not then. After the war there continued a steady chop.

Prof. Robert P.T. Coffin was a WWI vet. He had endured a ten year fight with the V.A. to win his disability. Manhood was the sacrifice of war not its prize. What’s the point for persons driving tanks to have a working knowledge of ancient history, oratory, debate and the classics? How is the war effort served by anyone’s ability to reason and tolerate opposing views?

Mr. Sills, Bowdoin’s president wrote, “Some of us believe that one of the contributing causes of the chaos in our modern world has been the fact that in so many nations, due to The First World War, thousands of young men and young women grew to maturity without having received in their early days the kind of education that is rightly called liberal, and without having received in their early days emphasis on the spiritual and ideal side of life.” Mr. Sills knew the essence of what was at stake, America, morality, manhood, intellectual freedom, the skill to reason.

Sills was long retired when in 1969 the administration decided to abolish all general education requirements. A new study traces the reverberations of that decision across decades, as Bowdoin faculty members struggled with students who could not write well, were deficient in math, neglected foreign languages, ignored the sciences, or over-specialized. The purpose of the report is not to pick on Bowdoin but to evaluate higher education using Bowdoin as a representative example. The report doesn’t claim that Bowdoin is materially different than other wealthy elite schools. Here is an excerpt:

“Politics is enthroned at Bowdoin where Reason once reigned. Like all usurpers, this one presents itself as the legitimate heir of the old order. Bowdoin manages this substitution by claiming that Reason all along was  political and that “truth claims,” seen accurately through the lens of “critical thinking,” are only assertions of self-interest by the powerful. Since everything was politics anyway, why not promote the politics you prefer? This is the short route to replacing open-minded liberal education with political activism centered on diversity, multiculturalism, same-sex marriage, sustainability, etc.”


I believe that spiritual good endures at Bowdoin. Political activism has its place.  But the purpose of a college is better met when critical thinking is cultivated far above and beyond any indoctrination in political correctness.

The new study shows the outcomes. The modern campus culture has replaced moral education, including a tolerance for opposing views, with a brainwash of contrived political correctness: The exhaustive 355 page report starkly concludes with ‘What Bowdoin (representative of colleges across the nation) Does Not Teach” (anymore): Intellectual modesty. Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A course on Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course on the American Revolution. The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public speaking. Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture.”

In my father’s 1940s story graduate degrees conferred at Bowdoin were still in the ancient latin form. And Kenneth Sills’s handclasp went with each one. And so did the Dean’s smile. During the 1942 commencement President Sills gave a speech. It was a desperate appeal for young people to think. There was a sharp silence after. When the President then asked for applause, the applause offered a kind of unexpected relief. There were no honorary degrees. Wars cut across such patterns. An undergraduate sang a solo “The Hills of Home”.  The uncut version of a song was sung “Rise Sons of Bowdoin”.

One Comment

  1. Thank you!

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