Commitment to African Americans

I just received my January 1999 edition of Black Enterprise. The cover of this magazine ranks the "Top 50 Colleges For African-Americans." So without hesitation Iturned to the article and was proud to see that this magazine ranked Oberlin College number 12. Iunderstand that a goal of any institution is to be number one in any ranking. However, considering that the first ten colleges and universities ranked are historically Black colleges and that number 10 and 11 are major research institutions, being ranked number 12 is a great honor.

Further into the article, Black Enterprise lists the top five national Liberal Arts Colleges and ranks Oberlin College number one. This is a tremendous honor, especially in light of some of the articles in past issues of Oberlin Alumni Magazine suggesting that Oberlin has lost its reputation. I beg to differ, that Oberlin's reputation was truly established in 1835 when Arthur Tappan rescued Oberlin from bankruptcy based upon several conditions-one in particular being that African-Americans be admitted as students on equal terms with whites.

This is where Oberlin's history lies; this is why Iand countless numbers of African-Americans attended, matriculated, and continue to support Oberlin. Not because of how the leading conservative magazines rank Oberlin, but because of Oberlin's commitment to African-Americans.

It is honors like this that we should all hold high, because it says that Oberlin is a safe haven for all students who seek to learn and explore the true meaning of education.

Chicago, Illinois

The Effect of Kent State

Professor Blodgett's column about how the Kent State shootings affected Oberlin resonates strongly with me, even though I didn't matriculate until 1971.

In June of 1970, the summer before my senior year of high school, Ispent a couple of weeks touring college campuses. Oberlin was the first school I visited.

It was already high on my list. Friends and cousins who had attended the school invariably used the same but enticing phrase to recommend it: Oberlin was "a very special place."

Then I took a walking tour of the campus. When the guide mentioned that Kent State students had set up a "campus in exile" at Oberlin, that phrase-"a very special place"-took on a very specific emotional meaning for me.

I applied for early admission.

Seymour, Connecticut

Remembering Bongiorno

It was September 1940 when the pre-computerized bureaucracy that scheduled incoming freshmen providentially assigned me "Eng. Comp. MWF 10 (Bongiorno)" and "Eng. Lit. TTS 10 (Bongiorno)."

Ihave never forgotten those classes nor the others Itook from him before going off to fight Fascism. Ihad many occasions since then to thank him.

What was there about Andrew Bongiorno's teaching? There were no pedagogical tricks, no walking to the window or wandering up and down the aisles, no vocal pyrotechnics.

I think it must have been that sense of quiet, yet passionate, intensity that he devoted to the texts before him. Here was a man who really loved those poems, those plays, those essays, and he somehow taught us that love. I've never forgotten that love, nor lost it.

To say he will be missed is a banality. When a great teacher dies, the world itself is injured.

Sarasota, Florida

Is Curriculum Really Preparing for the Future?

The interesting contrast between course offerings in Oberlin catalogues in 1958 and 1998 in the field of Mid-Western studies ("A Changing World-a Changing Curriculum,," Fall OAM) seems to me to reflect two things-first, obviously, an awakened public consciousness for ecological problems and their social implications, but second, development of articulate, rather wordy descriptions of the "objective" situation, which seem to hold the problems still at arm's length.

I am not yet impressed. I would be more so if you could show that Oberlin has contributed largely to that awakened consciousness before the public trends had manifested themselves.

And I would be more than impressed, indeed joyful, if I could sense that Oberlin is identifying the issues and insights that will be filling the public mind in the year 2040, and if Oberlin is preparing students to cope with the kind of problems that one can easily anticipate for that point in human history.

I marvel that the assumption can still be tolerated that somehow we shall bumble through with incremental improvements here and there in our social and economic attitudes. Are we, through the courses and teaching at Oberlin, really facing the existential questions of the sadder, wiser generations that will follow our own? And working out answers that aren't dammed up in our analytic heads but are reaching our troubled hearts and involving our willing hands?

Thus I might express the wish that your college catalogues for the year 2000 or 2001 show similar awareness and initiative in courses for economics, sociology, science-yes, and religion, music, literature and the arts as well-as is shown by David Orr in achieving his Center for Environmental Studies, but also that his own initiative will have expanded to include the whole campus, as an exploration of every student's contribution to nature and its life-renewing potential-not despite, but in, and through, mankind.

Theodore Van Vliet '39
Schopfheim, Germany

Environmental Studies: Oberlin and Beyond

Having spent much of my life since Oberlin involved in environmental policy at the national level, I was delighted to learn of the dedication of the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies and of the expanding curriculum associated with environmental studies at Oberlin.

Environmental policy often provokes many of the most contentious debates at the congressional level because decisions about pollution standards, land preservation, resource management, subsidies, and responsibility for mitigation involve precise levels of accountability, often with substantial ramifications. Such environmental issues are frequently at the center of the bitter debate between private property rights and public obligations that is at the core of critical national battles between, and sometimes within, the political parties.

Some of the fiercest battles I have witnessed (and in which I have participated in 24 years working in Congress) have been on these very topics: from western water to mining reform, from the Endangered Species Act to creation of national parks. Ioften encourage visiting students to utilize environmental politics as a means of understanding much of the political, regional, and ideological divisions within our nation and our legislative bodies at the end of the century, and I hope the Lewis Center and Oberlinians play a central role in formulating a scientifically sound and politically just environmental policy for the nation.

Democratic Staff Director
Committee on Resources
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

Teaching or Nurturing

The intergenerational exchange of letters about the quality of the personal contact between students and faculty at Oberlin elicited reflections. Should a college be a place of robust intellectual competition or a place to supportively nurture growth? The Oberlin of my era, before grade inflation, would have said, "both," although many members of the faculty were, no doubt, better at the former than were competent or interested in the latter. I do not know what the mix of thoughts would be today.

Forty years ago, and certainly still today, students need people to believe in them if they are to learn to believe in themselves. Parents, back then and since, may not always be as good at this art as they need to be. Teachers and others in an intimate academic community should be available to help fill the void.

At Oberlin the people who helped me were not so much faculty members-although a few were wonderful-as were older students, the leaders of extracurricular activities, adult members of religious groups with which I was affiliated, a boss at a job in town, and even an inspired food service manager under whose supervision I worked. In some classes, a little bit of humanity brought great and surprising blessings into bloom, while the cold intellectual atmosphere dried up the creative spirit in others.

Maybe some exposure to real world isolation is valuable, as graduates will soon enough enter the abrasive world of work, where, it is claimed, very few people have time to care. A college should be capable of more support than even a good workplace, but the Oberlin of my time was probably not that much different from the rest of the world in its mix of preoccupation and concern, error and success, empathetic feeling and egocentricity. Students compensate the best they can, dealing with life as it comes, often without knowing very clearly what they should be looking for. Some maturity, wisdom, experience, and alternate perspectives can be helpful to get the issue right.

Some faculty members inspired me, not because I knew them personally, but because the quality of their lives became apparent through their teaching. Sometimes a momentary exchange or the opportunity to see a relationship with some other student was enough.

Those who seemed to be little more than a disembodied mind advertised negatively on behalf of intellectual riches. I was grateful Oberlin put less pressure on its faculty to "publish or perish," even if that was not enough by itself. The mind, like a tulip, comes to life more gloriously when human sensitivity and feelings provide a strong stem supported by healthy roots.

A friend of mine, an incoming freshman in formative uncertainty, was wilted shamelessly at Oberlin when the dean of women gratuitously suggested she looked more like a candidate for the state university. My friend graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and was admitted to the Conservatory by Robert Fountain personally after he heard her sing. Nevertheless, she needed to develop confidence in herself, as young people can be somewhat insecure and fragile. A bit of encouragement can go a long way to help good kids find their way. In my view, college acceptance should not be just an impersonal opportunity to sink or swim, but should involve a commitment of college resources to help all students rise to the challenge presented.

When I was a freshman in 1956, we got rid of hazing and reached for a more civilized and humane ideal of student interrelationship. Mental toughness is valuable, but debate about the best way to achieve it is still possible. Survival by cold, hard, impersonal intellectuality is not much different than survival by the sword, as if the job of education were to create soldiers of the mind, just as brutal as soldiers of the sword.

As I have watched my son grow to college age at an intensely academic and athletic school, it has seemed important to get away from cutthroat competition and help improve the quality of everyone's educational experience through mutual support. Kindness is not always easy, and the greatly needy may want more than can be given. They can even become angry when the vessel of apparent bounty is exhausted. Human relationship can be complicated, even messy, but rigorous intellectuality is not a good substitute for humanity.

The Plains, Virginia

College's Image May be Blurred by Liberal Traditions

As an active drug policy reformer I am used to publicizing taboo issues. From the experience of my daughter at Oberlin a decade ago, it is my impression that Oberlin's image has been blurred as a result of the very liberal tradition of which many of us are proud-its early willingness to accept women, Jews, later African-Americans, and more recently (and relevantly) gays.

I gleaned from discussions with her and her classmates that the number of gay students had grown far beyond its proportion in the general population, that gay students were quite vocal, and that many straight students felt intimidated. Over the years, word of this may have spread, which may be a reason for a drop in interest in attending by many qualified students. (Of course much may have changed during the past ten years of which Iam not aware.)

I don't advocate restrictive quotas for any minority group and Idoubt that limits, practiced by others in the past, would even be legal today.

Perhaps we should not lament Oberlin's fall in status but rather take satisfaction that Oberlin is maintaining its proud tradition of accepting numbers of minorities and educating them in a positive setting, even if it means that a lot of highly qualified straight students who might otherwise have enrolled will not.

Hopefully in another decade or so there will be no societal reason for a disproportionate number of gay students to seek out Oberlin, which has come to be the case with other oppressed minorities from the past. And the alumni will look back at our current situation as another proud chapter in our college's history.

I am a fervent believer that providing accurate information to the public (in this case to the College community) and encouraging open discussion of issues will lead to wiser policies and practices over time. As one who does a lot of fundraising for liberal causes, Idoubt that candidly discussing the gay situation and its ramifications will do much harm in that area.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Football and the All-American Boy

"An atheist is a guy who watches a Notre-Dame-Southern Methodist football game and doesn't care who wins." (Attributed to Dwight Eisenhower.)

Perhaps if Oberlin's head football coach recites this gem to the team, they will be relaxed and inspired.

I agree with the letter from Betsy Curtis '41 (Summer 1998). I too, hate the term "Obies". It sounds like a crunchy breakfast cereal advertised back in 1930s-the days of Jack Armstrong-the All-American Boy.

Winnetka, Illinois

Blodgett's History Remains Inspirational to Alumna

Thank you for Geoffrey Blodgett's "Historian's Notebook" in the fall issue. I was in his Modern U.S. History class one afternoon, sitting in an upper row, when he told us, "The president has been shot." This is a moment one never forgets.

Before, during the election campaign, my friend Barb and I rode our bikes toward Elyria to see John Kennedy at a campaign appearance. We caught up with his car someplace out in the countryside and he shook our hands. He actually got out of his car, greeted us, and shook our hands.

Now our president has been impeached by the Republicans-not what our founding fathers wanted.

I thank Geoffrey Blodgett for his classes, for he made history come alive. I've been a computer programmer since 1981, and my studies in history made me learn how to analyze and think. That's why I'm such a great programmer, but actually, I miss the academic world very much. I would love to be back in Blodgett's class for one semester!

Chicago, Illinois