Actually, title of this blog aside, most people have no idea what Bowdoin College is, let alone why anyone would choose to go to this tiny school in Maine. But I, fair friends, am here to attempt to correct this cruel imbalance of perception by the ultimate stroke of modern agency: blogging.
The reason I got to thinking about my alma mater was this story by Michael Sanders in yesterday’s New York Times. Titled “Latest College Reading Lists: Menus With Pho and Lobster”, the piece profiles two schools, Bowdoin and Virginia Tech, that emphasize excellence in on-campus dining. There’s an accompanying slideshow that is itself a visual feast. In an age of hypercompetition between schools that share many features, every aspect of the school becomes important. Bowdoin has seen that food is a huge part of college life and has prioritized excellent dining in its budget and general philosophy. The result is that, as the piece notes, students often come to dinner and stay for an hour and a half. When I sent this piece to another alumnus, he remarked that this assessment was woefully inadequate. My friends and I would regularly stretch the dinner hour into two. Several years after graduation, those meandering conversations, punctuated by visits from a variety of folks, are some of my fondest memories. The Bowdoin philosophy is, I think, worthwhile.
But this is to say nothing of the food. The food was tremendous! Dining at Bowdoin was an indulgence, really, and one sometimes felt a little silly at the choices before one each night. Of course, when students are paying over $40k per year for an education, what do you expect? I can easily recall the smell of the omelet bar each Saturday morning, the aroma of steak or chicken parm or pad thai wafting through the dining hall. The dining hall mentioned in the piece, Thorne Hall, is itself a marvel to behold. For thousands of dollars, the school had lights that change color installed overhead. Though that may sound weird, the effect was impressive, as were the hardwood floors and stainless steel counters.
Thinking about food at Bowdoin makes one think about Bowdoin in general. I would encourage people to check the school out, and I would encourage young Christian people to think about attending the school. There is a great need for Christian witness at this and many other Northeastern schools of its ilk. If you’re a Christian in high school, don’t automatically assume that you’ll go to a Christian college or university. Think hard about whether your faith can withstand the test of an unbelieving university. Also, realize that many of these schools are not quite as menacing as they can sometimes be made out by well-meaning Christians. Students who are not well-grounded in their faith, who have not been trained to plug into a solid church and participate meaningfully in it, may very well struggle. I certainly saw that at Bowdoin. At a school of this type, where professors and students alike are intellectually able and generally averse to Christianity, believers will encounter significant challenges at times, and some who are weak to begin with will tragically fall away. But it was my experience that a student who was connected to a local church and in regular, enriching fellowship with non-believers could not only survive in a secular environment but thrive in it, and have countless opportunities to share the gospel and be an instrument of redemption.
We ought not to abandon bastions of secular thought, then. Bowdoin has a gay and lesbian studies department, but that does not mean that Christians cannot go to such a school and be a witness to the very students who would be inclined to such a “discipline”. On the contrary, such places are rife with witnessing opportunities. I personally did far more evangelism in college than I have done since, primarily because I was surrounded by intellectually curious young people who were often quite open to conversation about spiritual things. Some thinkers today paint a portrait of the average intellectual twentysomething unbeliever as if he walks around just ready to conversationally cut down any Christian he can find. My friends and I encountered some of this type, to be sure, but we met far more students who were confused, honest, and open to conversation about religion and the higher questions of life. Beware of easy stereotypes that lump widely divergent groups of people into a single mass of clearly defined qualities.
The food at Bowdoin was great. So were the academics. It’s a very tough little college that provides its students with exceptionally small classes taught by teachers who love to teach. It’s in a beautiful spot in Maine (can you tell I was a tour guide?). But for a Christian, it not only offers a great education, but a great opportunity. If you’re considering schools yourself, or if you’re raising young minds, don’t automatically write off a college like Bowdoin. Pray about it, and see if you–or your charge–might be part of a gospel movement at such a place, an undertaking more significant than even the most exhilarating educational experience.