Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What kind of history are they teaching at Bowdoin College?

In an otherwise fascinating overview of the Great Courses company in City Journal, Heather Mac Donald takes pains to contrast the company's market-driven approach of bringing the canon to its audience to the overly PC approach to curriculum taken by actual colleges. Here's a typical example high in the piece:
This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans,” “Women in American History, 1600–1900,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: Gender and the Suburbs,” but if he wanted a course in American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War, he would have been out of luck. A Great Courses customer, by contrast, can choose from a cornucopia of American history not yet divvied up into the fiefdoms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, with multiple offerings in the American Revolution, the constitutional period, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, and the intellectual influences on the country’s founding.
Here's some actual highlights from the Bowdoin College history program offerings for Fall 2011:
110. Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Europe
Dallas Denery T 8:30 - 9:55, TH 8:30 - 9:55
A wide-ranging survey of pre-modern European history, beginning with the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) and concluding with the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Particular attention is paid to the relation between church and state, the birth of urban culture and economy, institutional and popular religious movements, and the early formation of nation states.

142. The United States since 1945
Daniel Levine T 2:30 - 3:55, TH 2:30 - 3:55
Consideration of social, intellectual, political, and international history. Topics include the Cold War; the survival of the New Deal; the changing role of organized labor; Keynesian, post-Keynesian, or anti-Keynesian economic policies; and the urban crisis. Readings common to the whole class and the opportunity for each student to read more deeply in a topic of his or her own choice.

201. History of Ancient Greece: Bronze Age to the Death of Alexander
Stephen O'Connor T 2:30 - 3:55, TH 2:30 - 3:55
Surveys the history of Greek-speaking peoples from the Bronze Age (c. 3000–1100 B.C.E.) to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. Traces the political, economic, social, religious, and cultural developments of the Greeks in the broader context of the Mediterranean world. Topics include the institution of the polis (city-state); hoplite warfare; Greek colonization; the origins of Greek “science,” philosophy, and rhetoric; and fifth-century Athenian democracy and imperialism. Necessarily focuses on Athens and Sparta, but attention is also given to the variety of social and political structures found in different Greek communities. Special attention is given to examining and attempting to understand the distinctively Greek outlook in regard to gender, the relationship between human and divine, freedom, and the divisions between Greeks and barbarians (non-Greeks). A variety of sources—literary, epigraphical, archaeological—are presented, and students learn how to use them as historical documents. Note: This course fulfills the pre-modern requirement for history majors.

232. History of the American West
Connie Chiang T 10:00 - 11:25, TH 10:00 - 11:25
Survey of what came to be called the Western United States from the nineteenth century to the present. Topics include Euro-American relations with Native Americans; the expansion and growth of the federal government into the West; the exploitation of natural resources; the creation of borders and national identities; race, class, and gender relations; the influence of immigration and emigration; violence and criminality; cities and suburbs; and the enduring persistence of the “frontier” myth in American culture. Students write several papers and engage in weekly discussion based upon primary and secondary documents, art, literature, and film.

243. Old Regime and Revolutionary France
Meghan Roberts M 11:30 - 12:55, W 11:30 - 12:55
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, many heralded King Louis XIV as the most powerful monarch to ever rule. By the end of the century, however, the French people overthrew this vaunted monarchy. Topics include: why did France have a revolution? What conflicts--social, cultural and intellectual--helped shape politics and society? What were the global implications of events in France, especially for the enslaved populations of French colonies? How did the Revolution impact everyday life, including social relationships and material culture? Why did the French Revolution become radical and--all too often--violent?

274. The Shot Heard 'Round the World: The History of the American Revolution
Strother Roberts M 9:30 - 10:25, W 9:30 - 10:25, F 9:30 - 10:25
For those who lived through it, the American Revolution was a very personal experience. It pitted neighbors against neighbors, tore local communities apart, and destroyed families. It ruined livelihoods and ended lives. But the Revolution was also a global phenomenon. Its ideological origins lay in ancient Greece and Rome. Its economic causes stretched around the globe to the tea plantations of China. It spawned battles fought from the icy tundra of the subarctic to the tropical waters of the Caribbean. Its ideals and values have inspired generations from around the globe. Only by studying the complexity of the Revolution, by placing the local experiences of newly-minted Americans within the global backdrop of their times, can this formative stage of United States history be fully understood.

307. Topics in Medieval and Early Modern European History
Dallas Denery T 1:00 - 3:55
A research seminar for majors and interested non-majors focusing on Medieval and Early Modern Europe. After an overview of recent trends in the historical analysis of this period, students pursue research topics of their own choice, culminating in a significant piece of original historical writing (approximately 30 pages in length)
I can't imagine that this course offering is substantially different from the one Mac Donald referenced. And certainly there are also classes—The History of Latinos in the United States, "Bad" Women Make Great History: Gender, Identity, and Society in Modern Europe, 1789-1945—that emphasize a gender- or race-based view of history. What's more, that's fine: Not to get overly PC about it, but "other" people have long experienced and shaped history in different ways than what we've received from the Dead White Males. There shouldn't be a reason, moreover, that the Dead White Males and the Dead French Women can't co-exist on the same campus.

But it's simply not the case—as Mac Donald implies—that those kinds of courses are taught at Bowdoin to the exclusion of the kind of broad sweep of history classes she apparently prefers. Mac Donald's problem can't be that the gender- and race-based curricula have pushed the more traditional stuff out of Bowdoin's offerings. The problem, apparently, is that they exist at all.

1 comment:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Good job getting the research on this, Joel, and showing that he is, indeed, wrong about the "no political history" thing. I think the fact that he considers "Women 1600-1900" a marginal course -- and can't posssibly have anything to do with political history, of course, because they're girls, you know -- is a strong argument for why those courses need to exist.

Now I'm off to teach my course on Women and Gender in Premodern Europe...