To the Editor:
As a recent alumnus of Oberlin College, I feel it is my duty to carry on a tradition of silent apathy. For this reason alone, I am usually compelled not to write letters such as this one-also, since I still owe a large amount of money to several student loan organizations, it has been prudent for me to maintain a low public profile and contribute to the growing rumors that I have skipped the country. But Kiese Laymon's Commentary Box has forced me to put pen to paper.
I'm tempted to write a rational response to an obviously flawed argument; I'm tempted to explain the very notion of a university and how Oberlin College fulfills its mission much better than most; I'm tempted to explain the high academic reputation of Oberlin College and how it has helped me. But instead I'm just going to tell Laymon that, in fact, students do pay professors to stand at the front of a classroom and give a "soliloquy" of sorts, and if you would rather just read and formulate your own ideas, why don't you drop out of Oberlin and give correspondence school a try?
I understand that Sally Struthers offers wonderful mail-courses on either air-condition or VCR repair.
Excuse me if my sympathies have shifted since I left college, but have you ever stood in front of a class day in and day out, giving yet another variation on a lecture you must have delivered at least 20 times before? Do you know how incredibly mind-numbing it can be to explain the basics of political government, social interaction, or even British history to a group of kids who, half the time, only signed up for the course because it was their third-alternate choice after the EXCO courses for Batik and Dr. Seuss got filled? Sure, your mind is brimming with exciting new ways of reading some author, or modeling democratic transitions in authoritarian states, or whatever, but you can't share that with the folks in front of you. That would be like trying to explain quantum mechanics to people who haven't even passed algebra. But then when you do try and share just a little, miniscule, dumbed-down slice of what comes after the basics they are still learning, there has to be a group of self-righteous students who resent your "enforcing" your "personal" viewpoint on them.
So after a few years you get forced into making a decision: Do you sit there and become a student puppet, bowing to the machinations of every hung-over post-adolescent who glances at you like you're Eva Peron when you mention the slightest possibility that there might, in fact, be a CORRECT answer to this, or any, question? If you do, then you don't really submit them to any academically rigorous method of learning, and every slacker on campus starts trying to save seats in your classes well before the semester even begins. Or do you become numb to the moronic drivel of every self-styled emancipator, every Che Guevara of the common student that walks through your door and demands that more culturally-sensitive and less formal standards be used in teaching (God forbid there should be any requirements or expectations in life!)? If you do, you risk being labeled as the Sacred Tenure Cow. And, of course, everybody wants to be the High Priest with the knife when that happens.
I know this may come as a grand shock to you, Laymon, but you are an undergraduate. Given the state of education in most high schools in this country, you are officially qualified to pump gas. Since professors teach to the lowest common denominator, they have to assume that the average Oberlin student is only slightly more qualified than that - perhaps able to distinguish between regular and unleaded. Your undergrad education is supposed to be a basis for more advanced study, but even in grad school you'll be assailed by the opinions and demands of an advisor and dissertation committee. And then if you become a professor, you get to go to meetings or read books and listen to people deride everything you have ever thought or said in your career. Is it fun? Is it fair? Is it the best way? Maybe not, but it's real life. Try it for a change.
Oh, and one more shock, Laymon: At the ages of 18 through 21, you aren't supposed to have much of anything figured out. So, unless you are the next Neils Bohr or Richard Wright, maybe you should shut up and listen. Then you can trying rubbing a few brain cells together and seeing if anything comes of it.
And always keep in mind the sense of fairness and optimism that you learn at Oberlin. It's certainly prevented me from becoming a cynical, bitter person.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 8; November 8, 1996
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