What's the Matter with Oberlin?
Nothing we should worry too much over.
Apparently, we’re supposed to be worried about Oberlin.
No doubt some stuff has been going down at the northern Ohio school 45 minutes southwest of Cleveland that serves just under 3,000 undergraduates: student protests, faculty division, other varieties of sturm and drang.
We’re so worried that the New Yorker dispatched Nathan Heller to find out what the heck is happening, and he reports on some of the apparent divisions between students and administration, students and faculty, faculty and administration, and even among faculty and students themselves.
Things have gotten so bad at Oberlin that students have marched on the president's house, resulting in six student arrests, allegedly at the president's behest. The resulting campus outcry has led the president to agree to a six month "leave of absence" as the campus regroups and considers its future.
Wait, I got my information mixed up. Those arrests happened in April 1990 when S. Fred Starr was president.
What we see in the recent news is no less than Oberlin being Oberlin.
It’s a trying time at Oberlin because it's almost always a trying time at Oberlin. Based on Heller’s reporting, emotions are frayed, many faculty mystified by the attitudes of students, and students feeling betrayed by the institution that they believed would be more welcoming.
We’re so concerned about Oberlin that New York Times columnist David Brooks devoted an entire installment to what may be ailing not just Oberlin students, but “elite college students” in general.
Brooks believes that students are caught between a hyper-competitive meritocracy, and a desire for moral meaning that has been left unfulfilled by their social justice progressivism. For Brooks, this “clash” between the striving for individual excellence within a meritocracy and the desire for an egalitarian society has created an unsolvable tension.
I dunno. Maybe. I’ve been wondering how elite college students can be “excellent sheep” and budding leftist authoritarians seeking to overthrow the established order at the same time, and perhaps Brooks’s theory explains this dichotomy.
Here’s something I am confident in, though: what’s going on at Oberlin College is not representative of higher education in general. It isn’t even representative of “elite” higher education.
The history of Oberlin is larded with student activism. Oberlin students joined the Freedom Summer protests in disproportionate numbers. It was the first school to boast co-ed dormitories after students challenged the social order.
In 2004, student protests succeeded in enacting a campus-wide ban of Coca-Cola products. (Coke returned in 2014.)
Protest is the lingua franca of Oberlin. It is the method and manner by which it does its business. It has been ever thus and will be forever more.
But Oberlin is no more representative of what’s happening on college campuses across America than -- to take an institution from the opposite extreme -- Bob Jones University.
We shouldn’t mistake microclimates for the overall atmosphere.
For example, consider the December contretemps over the food being served in the Oberlin dining halls, when students accused the Bon Appétit Management company of “cultural insensitivity” and “cultural appropriation” in trying to pass off pulled pork and coleslaw as banh mi.
What we have here is the most enduring student complaint in the books – the cafeteria food sucks – framed the Oberlin way, as a quest for social justice, nothing more, nothing less.
It’s fun to roll our eyes at this stuff, and I join in myself, but I promise at most every other college and university, when students don’t like the food, they protest the old-fashioned American way, by complaining that they’re not getting their money’s worth. They sometimes even have their parents make a call.
Indeed, in looking at Nathan Heller’s reporting, the fundamental emotion underpinning the discontent of both students and faculty at Oberlin appears to be disappointment that one’s wishes have not been borne out by reality.
Student activists report being mystified at the resistance of a school they thought was infused with a spirit of activism and a passion for social justice. Professors seem equally disappointed in the students who have arrived on their campus. They are befuddled by students who will “go over their professors’ heads” and student fidelity to a strict interpretation of identity politics.
The specifics of these disputes aside, which are playing out in a particularly Oberlin-ian way, we’re in the midst of the same kind of generational shifts that happen era after era inside of our educational institutions.
We’re also seeing the consequences of a system where institutions market themselves as a particular “experience,” encouraging students to fill in the blanks with all of their greatest hopes and dreams. Oberlin is likely in greater danger of disappointing their students than most when the rubber hits the road.
It is tempting to formulate catastrophic conclusions, particularly in an era when we are privy to this kind of news and we can draw these threads together into a broader narrative, but I believe we need to resist these trends because they are a lie.
In fact, many of these threads of student protest that are yoked together by both Heller and Brooks reveal complicating elements when we look at the specifics of the campuses and culture.
For one example, at Yale, student reaction to a letter from an associate faculty house master regarding the rights of students to “transgress” with their choice of Halloween costume seemed over the top, evidence of runaway entitlement.
But perhaps there’s a more nuanced picture, where this incident is a straw breaking the back of long-simmering dysfunction, as a recent ad hoc faculty committee report finds that for better than 40 years Yale has been paying lip service to expanding opportunities, but consistently failing to follow through on those promises.
This isn’t to say that we need to suspend all personal judgment on these incidents, but I think we would do well to understand the limits of those judgments. I can find a particular student protest ill-considered without letting go of my belief that student engagement – including in the form of protests – should be encouraged.
Still, the temptation to dismiss concerns that seem ill-considered is strong. I battle with this all the time on a personal level when students complain about an assignment being “hard” or “confusing.” It is tempting pass off these attitudes as products of defective character, but before I do so, I want to know what students think is “hard,” and why they feel this way. This is not because I want to make things easier, but because through engagement, I get a better idea of the challenges they perceive and can explain why I think those challenges are worth grappling with.
They may not agree with me, but at least we all know where we stand.
One of the reasons I support the rights of students to protest is because it is an opportunity for engagement. If that engagement is going to be productive, though, it must be returned.
Appeasing protests to get students to be quiet won’t work as it merely invites bigger problems down the line. Similarly, telling students to STFU won’t get us anywhere. If students are bad at protesting, I believe a decent proportion of fault for any current campus dysfunction falls to the authorities responding to the protests. Require students to act as the stakeholders (one group of many) they wish to be, no more, no less.
The day we think the fabric of our culture is unraveling because students are complaining about crappy cafeteria food we really should be worried. The day we're afraid of students, we should pack it up and go home.
How’s it go? We have nothing to fear but fear itself? Let’s stop making outliers into big bad bogeymen.
Oberlin was established in 1833 and it hasn’t managed to destroy the republic yet.
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