here are a bit like visiting an Oberlin theme park as opposed
to the actual, in-session College. I adopt all my former trappings
of student life---no sleep, too much food, not enough water---but
only for 48 hours. I wear sneakers and carry a backpack, stroll
from North Quad through Tappan Square to town, then head over
to Mudd to check my e-mail, and back to Burton where I'm staying.
I'm always amazed how easily I slip into this life, how comfortable
I feel. Walking into the 15th Reunion Headquarters in Barrows,
I felt I had never left--as though the set of experiences I've
come to think of as my adult life were a dream.
there have been times in my post-Oberlin life when the
simplicity and assurances of college seem ideal: no high-stress
job, no mortgage or car payments, no inklings of that
"real world" students used to discuss with a mixture of
scorn and dread. As a creative writing major, I had the
time to read, write, think, and reflect. I learned
pay attention to the world, to notice the stars and the
Ohio landscape and the voices of the people around me.
These are the things I still value, that drive my professional
work and my creative life. Revisiting their origins feels
something like a pilgrimage, a welcome attempt to reconnect
with whatever I felt at Oberlin, whatever started me down
the path that I'm still following.
the weekend there were many references to Oberlin's mission
of "changing the world." Not as in "Oberlin students can
change the world", but "Oberlin students must change the
world." The graduating class, fueled by copious amounts
of idealism and (I'm guessing here) the dark roast coffee
that has invaded town, was responsible for some of this
rhetoric, which coincided with the opening of a Barnes
and Noble in the Co-Op's former space. But alumni also
got into the act, with a few publicly pledging to "bring
down" the capitalist system they believe is grossly unfair.
activism has always been part of the Oberlin experience.
While I generally supported the cause, in the vague, go-along-to
get-along sense that 19- and 20-year-olds do many things,
I wasn't willing to build shanties on Wilder Bowl or occupy
a difference between working for change and appointing
yourself a standard bearer. To me, that says, "We're better
than everyone else." As these students will ultimately
find out, they can't stamp every situation with an Oberlin
seal of approval. What we can do is crusade for fairness,
ethics, and compassion in life, and in dealings with others.
there's an unstated Oberlin "mission," perhaps it's to
offer help or guidance or knowledge to others. Whether
or not I change the world, Oberlin changed me for the
better. Almost 15 years later, I still feel a common bond
with the place, a common sense of decency. That, to me,
is what makes our institution great, regardless of whether
we speak out, act up, or fulfill a mission only in our
D. Shull is author of For the Love of Teaching: And
Other Reasons Teachers Do What They Do. He lives in
Shirley, Massachusetts, with his wife, Anne Parker Shull