The PhD Path

Jim Lawless’ article about why so many Oberlin students commit to a life of the mind is one of the most important ever published in the alumni magazine. It speaks to the power of the Oberlin ethos and that hard-to-articulate quality that differentiates, and has always differentiated, Oberlin from its peers. The article concentrated on the most recent numbers of Oberlin PhDs, from 1994 to 2003. But it also could have looked at the accumulated results from 1922: Oberlin has always been among the top producers of PhDs in the United States, and not only among liberal arts colleges. In addition to the explanations suggested in your article, I would offer two more: 1) Oberlin’s high-quality faculty has always done a good job acculturating each new generation into understanding the value of discovery and knowledge creation. 2) Unlike nearly all universities and colleges in the U.S., Oberlin is a “seven-day” institution of learning. Other than Swarthmore, Reed, Grinnell, and Cal Tech, most colleges and universities in which I have worked and taught are four- and five-day places. Parties begin Thursday evening and end Monday morning. At Oberlin, fortunately, the library has always been the place to be and be seen.
Robert I. Rotberg ’55
Cambridge, Mass.

I too, am following the Oberlin path to a PhD. Compared to those profiled in the story, I’m a slow learner (class of 1974). But now at least I have a fresh answer for those who ask me why I returned to school in my 50s. The love of learning fostered at Oberlin has never dissipated. I guess it’s in my DNA.
Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam ’74
East Lansing, Mich.

I was interested in the article touting the gross number of Oberlin graduates attaining PhDs over 10 years. An impressive result! Yet, such statistics can be misleading. The size of a school obviously can have a bearing on the number of PhDs produced. A more appropriate and fairer measure might be the number of PhDs produced per 1,000 graduates. I have no idea how Oberlin would rank on this basis. But if Wesleyan has half as many graduates as Oberlin, it would rank higher. Someone might want to check this out before we claim bragging rights!
Jim Compere ’57
Traverse City, Mich.

Estimating the percentages is tricky, which is why the national reports opt not to do so. Determining the percentage of graduates from any time period who earned doctoral degrees from each school would require applying a time lag representing the median time taken from bachelor’s degree to PhD —about 10 years. In terms of sheer numbers, there are more PhDs in the world with Oberlin degrees than those from other 4-year colleges. Also, as the story states, we opted not to dwell on numbers, but more on the academic climate at Oberlin that encourages advanced learning.

An ultimate gift for soldiers

As someone who has actively opposed the war, I was incredibly moved to read about the gift of frisbees sent overseas and the response it generated. The Flying Horsecows’ gift, in its size and simplicity, brought to mind something Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That quote reminds me of a certain college poster I saw in high school: “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” Happily, I still believe that.
Katie McCall ’96
Oakland, Calif.

Remembering Andy Woolf

The summer issue brought news that Andy Woolf ’67 died. He was my hero at Oberlin; he was a brilliant student in Andy Hoover’s modern poetry class, and he hosted a live open-mic night every Friday on WOBC for folk musicians who had few other places to perform. Andy formed a jug band, which was among the reasons I got serious about playing washtub bass in the 1970s. He wrote a song for the band, to the tune of a Western song called Abilene, that became the Oberlin anthem for the era. (Warning: Turn off your sexism alarms. This was written five years before the word was invented, and Andy was not a sexist.)

“With section autonomy, the faculty warns, There won’t be any women sleeping in their dorms. They’ll all be up on the north end of campus, In Oberlene, my Oberlene. Oberlene, Oberlene, where the girls are pure and clean. Yeah, they’re peachy keen in Oberlene, my Oberlene. Those wise restraints that make men free, Those wise restraints sure ain’t for me, I can’t wait to get out, Of Oberlene, my Oberlene.”

Thanks also for Anne Trubek’s commentary on the SAT essay. The test sounded like a good idea when I first heard about it but is really a scandal for reasons she expresses. Her ideas need to spread beyond Oberlin graduates and English teachers.
Ken Braiterman ’69
Concord, N.H.

Correction: Stuart Christie ’89 pointed out that Mike Heithaus ’95 (Paths of Knowledge) did not receive his PhD from “an institution named after the fictional, latte-swilling, television character spun off from the sit-com, Cheers, but rather from Simon Fraser University, an elite institution in Vancouver.” The same story also incorrectly identified Tariq al-Jamil ’95 as a Kansas native. Growing up, he actually lived in several places, including Kansas City, Mo.

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