When the outside world hears about Oberlin, it is often in the context of an article about the liberal haven in Ohio. But does the Oberlin of today really hold up to the legacy of liberalism it cherishes?
For years, first-year students have taken opinion surveys at enrollment that attempt to characterize the political slant of a class.
Data from incoming first-year surveys show that students continue to espouse liberal attitudes and values towards issues such as abortion, capital punishment and minority rights. But these results don't say anything about progressivism and radicalism at Oberlin.
Students and professors who believe the student body has become less radical refer to the absence of campus-wide student demonstration and support for national issues. They remember when students were galvanized by the Vietnam War, Oberlin's investment in South Africa, women and sexuality issues and the Gulf War. Current seniors and juniors refer to the radical identity politics that took place two years ago.
"When I first came to Oberlin, there was much more political debate," said Professor of Economics James Zinser, who started teaching in 1967. "But I don't think [the students] have become more conservative. They are just less engaged today."
Long time students and professors agree that students are generally just as ideologically liberal as they have always been. By liberal, Professor of African American Studies Booker Peek, means someone who supports issues such as a woman's right to abortion, affirmative action and civil and human rights. Peek said, "I've been here since 1970 ... To this day my sense is that students have been consistent in supporting these types of issues."
Students and professors also point out that the change in activism should be looked at contextually. Ntombi Peters, OC '98, Africana Community Coordinator at the Multicultural Resource Center, remarked, "Don't forget that when you look at the entire 18 to 22-year-old population, all of them are less active than their counterparts five to six years ago ... The first-year students who are now 18 have been raised in a different environment than I as a 25 year old was."
Professor of History and East Asian Studies Ronald DiCenzo joined the faculty in 1972. He said, "We have to look beyond this campus. Students now come from a different time than they did in the 1960s ... If we look at the rest of the country now, we see new ways of demonstrating, such as through volunteerism."
Nostalgia for past activism aside, Mark Graham, assistant editor of Oberlin On-line, views the passing of radicalism and the rise of moderation as a welcome and progressive change. Graham, a former student, remembers student politics in his first year, 1993-94. Students were known for vocal demonstrations, Graham said, "but this was because there was a lot of unconstructive yelling." Although students were liberal in attitude, their liberalism was laden with white guilt and condescension, according to Graham.
Currently, Graham feels students are more progressive. "They are more pragmatic and are working with people, instead of for them. There is much less do-gooder volunteerism," he said.
Professor of Sociology Bill Norris, who has been at Oberlin since 1978, said, "While there are fluctuations in certain issues, I see a continuity in students' liberal orientation ... and a continuity towards the value of social change."
At the same time, some current students are not convinced that volunteerism has become less of a 'do-gooder' form of demonstration. "Modern-day volunteerism is ultimately just a way of rerouting resistance," said college senior Tiffanie Luckett. "Students use it to keep from being accused of being insular, but hardly is it progressive."
Chair of African-American Studies Yakubu Saaka admitted, "Students are not as progressive as 15 years ago, but they are more so than in the mid-1980s." At that time, Saaka explained, Oberlin progressiveness went down partly as a reflection of the time in the rest of America and as a reflection of the conservative administration of former College President Fred Starr.
Some professors believe that the administration of President Nancy Dye has helped foster a more progressive climate. "Recently both students and the Dye administration have been proactive in dealing with issues consistent with liberalism," said Saaka.
However, some students have noticed growing backlash against liberal politics. College junior Eva Owens feels that Oberlin has entered a 'post PC' phase of politics, which is actually more conservative politics. In this phase, she said, "people think it's all right to make racist jokes as long as they 'know' or 'understand' that what they are saying is racist."
College senior LaToyia Huggins commented, "I hear people who were once supportive of identity politics now beginning to feel offended by it."
"[People] complain that everyone has too many issues," said Huggins. "Those people are asking, 'Why can't we all be one community?'"
According to Huggins, these people think they are being liberal by calling for unity, but to her, this is conservative politics. "They are ignoring differences between communities," she said.
Huggins pointed out that similar backlash has been occurring in the rest of the U.S., such as towards affirmative action and bilingual education in California.
As in the past, political culture outside of Oberlin continues to influence student politics. Like the rest of the country, students are leaning more to the center in their political orientation. They take pride, though, in the belief that they still remain left of center. "I don't believe Oberlin students will be challenging mainstream culture [as they used to]," said Graham. "But I see greater engagement [and] integration of education with social concern and activism."
At the same time, some students fear that the student body may be too complacent with merely being 'liberal.' They believe liberals also need to be progressive. And to be progressive, said college senior Liza Turner, people need to challenge their own privileges. "There are a lot of students here who take on issues that may be liberal, yet they don't challenge their own positions as white, upper class and/or male."
Liberals?: Students' appearance doesn't always seem to reflect their politics. (photo by Pauline Shapiro)
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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