Editorial: Education to Bridge Gap
Two weeks ago, a group of youths, two of whom have been identified as members of the greater Oberlin community, assaulted and robbed three College students at gunpoint. Though this is not the first time violence has occurred on campus, it is not typical. And it brings with it questions of why this happened and whether this will negatively impact town-gown relations — especially given the tensions exacerbated by recent changes in College housing policies.
In one of these incidents, the victim suggested that the attack might have had a socioeconomic motivation. He recalled, in fact, that one of the assailants scornfully told him to “go back to college.” If an understood socioeconomic divide was an impetus for these violent actions, then one may explore what could have contributed to these sentiments. What has created a chasm between town and gown that is this dramatic? Is it the perception that College students seem to enjoy greater privilege and opportunity? Is it that College students seem indifferent to the people who work and live outside the College? It would be difficult to find a stand-alone answer, and it is possible that all of these tensions adversely affect the College-community relationship.
Perhaps less important than finding the source(s) of this sentiment is fighting it. One need not condone the attacks to understand that students inside the “Obie bubble” have responsibilities to the town as well as the College. Unlike Vassar and Bates Colleges, Oberlin is not enclosed by a wall or gate that shuts off the campus from the rest of the town. Obies must take greater advantage of this physical unity to achieve unity in the intellectual and emotional sense as well.
College students who move beyond their campus environment and learn about the workings of the town can benefit both the town and themselves. When College students take the time to teach Spanish to Oberlin’s elementary students, to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club or even to say “thank you” to local vendors, students provide a positive interaction that may offset negative prejudices of College students.
The Graduate Teacher Education Program, scheduled for launch this June, may be another step toward strengthening town-gown communication, though this is not a stated goal of the program. By placing students in one-year internships in Oberlin public schools, the program enables the graduate students to better understand the town; at the same time, it allows the town to become more confident that students can play a positive role in the community. Expanding upon the positive effect of College students’ involvement in existing programs such as Head Start and S.I.T.E.S., the graduate students will become an imperative part of the daily lives of Oberlin youth.
The program’s creation demonstrates that trust already exists between the College and the local school systems: The College expresses its desire to play a greater role in the larger Oberlin community, and the town demonstrates its confidence in the graduate students by allowing the a role in its classrooms. This is a major step towards reinforcing the commitment of both the College and its students to promoting education beyond the confines of the campus.
The College and the town have an inherent connection because of their shared history. Both trace their roots to the 1830s. It was a College student, Eliza Branch, who was the first schoolteacher in the Oberlin city school system. The community was founded upon the idea of the town and College working together through education and promotion of progressive values.
Neither the College nor the town should allow recent violent events to overshadow this shared history. Instead, both students and community members must work together to promote a healthy mutual understanding. This may require both students and town members to shed or suspend stereotypes. And it almost certainly requires an active effort by both groups.