For the first Campus Issues series, I wrote an article comparing the Oberlin and Wooster campuses, with an eye on ethnic diversity. Last week, the editor-in-chief of the Oberlin Review called me at the Voice office. She wanted to ask me a few things. And though she was perfectly polite about it, I think she really wanted to ask what I'd been smoking when I wrote that piece.
Did I really think they were that diverse? I didn't say what I immediately thought: whatever else may qualify this number, Oberlin remains 10 percent less white than we are. Have you been to Wooster? I asked her. She hadn't. (Who has, except us?) I do wonder if a walk from Bever to Beall would lessen her incredulity.
But I must also admit that her questions did not offend or even particularly surprise me. The Oberlin in the article is a college viewed wistfully from the outside, and not the atmosphere dealt with on a daily basis by someone who perhaps also expected more from the institution he or she chose. And my approach to Oberlin was not as unbiased as, perhaps, it should have been in an ideal journalistic world.
The comparison with Oberlin College was suggested by another editor, but I volunteered for the assignment. I chose to do this not only because I have transportation and know the way there, but because I spent a lot of time there in the years before college. I know several professors there, am acquainted with a few of the higher-ups of the National Association of College Stores based in town and went to high school with the president of the college's son.
To me, Oberlin was the ultimate college town, and I loved it. My first memory of it is the Russian House that I always passed, fittingly enough, on the way to see my friend who spoke only Russian at home. Another friend had been whisked away to Spain for a year when her mom was sent off on some fellowship that meant little to me at the time. The music professor I know from the Conservatory is Belgian.
At the time, I was still immersed in my odd little high school where whites were barely a majority even though there were hardly any African-Americans to be found. In the town where I lived, I noticed odd looks when I walked around with people who weren't the same color as me. In Oberlin, no one even noticed us. I loved that.
But I didn't realize how much I loved that until I came to Wooster. Until I walked into a first-year seminar that was entirely white and was told to discuss tolerance with them. Until a peer expressed surprise that our Indian professor attended a Christian church. Until I ate in a cafeteria where there seemed to be tables seated by race. Until I realized that there were people in my Indian religions course who had never heard of the Upanishads before they picked up the syllabus.
These things disappointed me. Yes, I realized that I had been living in a bubble. But I thought that a little liberal arts school that prided itself on diversity would be an extension of that idealized atmosphere.
Oberlin remains to me an idyllic campus with trees, squirrels and people who don't match. They have their divisions. They have their archway with its Chinese characters commemorating the massacre of Christian missionaries, which serves as a center of controversy for the campus, and at every commencement graduates walk around it instead of through it. They didn't get an Ethnic Studies department like Berkeley has.
The Review staffer asked whether I think Oberlin students take for granted what they have. Yeah, I said, but so do we, and I'm jealous, so it's not a fair assessment anyway.
Frankly, I like my Oberlin illusion (which isn't entirely illusion. They still have a Far East Studies department, and as several Chinese-language students will attest to, Wooster is not nearing any such commitment). If Wooster doesn't have someone to look up to, it is not likely to make improvements at the same rate as it might in order to keep up with the institutional Joneses.
If I wrote my article on a rose-tinted screen, I apologize. But I do not regret challenging this college to be like the Oberlin of which I am enamored, even if it is not the Oberlin that the Review reports on its pages.
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 11, December 5, 1997
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