Change, but What of Oberlin?
that Obies' attitudes have remained remarkably similar over the
Behrad Mahdi, who hails from Columbus, Ohio, was
a member of Oberlin's football team last fall. Have a picture in
again. In addition to playing football during his first year at
Oberlin, Mahdi -- who's also a violist -- studied sophomore-level
mathematics, became interested in Amnesty International, and took
piano instruction for credit.
have long believed that they defy conventional stereotypes and resist
the merely fashionable, but they often suspect that current students
are less involved than students once were. Is that true?
interesting insights can be derived from a survey of first-year
students at hundreds of colleges across the country
administered each fall by the Higher Education Research Institute
at the University of California, Los Angeles.
survey collects a range of data, including information about students'
high-school experiences, their educational and career aspirations,
and their attitudes about a range of national political issues.
Now in its 35th year, it is the most comprehensive survey of its
kind and aims to show how the attitudes and aspirations of college
freshmen change over time.
news about this year's national freshman class struck some as discouraging.
Just as this fall's historic presidential race was coming to its
crescendo, college freshmen declared an alarming lack of interest
in politics. Nationally, the proportion of entering freshmen who
reported that it was essential or very important to keep up to date
with political affairs dropped to 28.1 percent, the lowest rate
since the survey was established in 1966.
this fall's perplexing presidential race provided a lesson in politics,
college freshmen may have slept through the class," said a
January 26 story on the survey results in The Chronicle of Higher
more disturbing for those who follow trends in civic engagement,
only 17.6 percent of college freshmen nationally considered influencing
the political structure as an essential or very important goal.
By contrast, 73.4 percent of college freshmen nationally indicated
that "being very well off financially" was an essential
or very important goal.
as Mahdi's profile suggests, the view from Oberlin is rather different.
Oberlin, students in all classes show considerable interest in national
politics. They participated in very large numbers in College events
related to the presidential election, including Convocation Series
lectures, election-night coverage itself, and formal and informal
discussions of the controversial Florida vote count.
by a considerable majority, new students at Oberlin do not agree
that it is essential or very important to be very well off financially.
Compared with their peers nationally, Oberlin's new students were
more than twice as likely to have discussed politics in the past
year. Even compared with new students at other very highly selective
colleges, new Oberlin students were substantially more likely in
the past year to have discussed religion, to have visited an art
gallery or museum, and to have participated in "organized demonstrations."
the aggregate, new Oberlin students consistently indicate a stronger
affinity for traditional liberal positions than do their peers at
other highly selective colleges. Opinions were sought on issues
including the abolition of the death penalty, the continued legality
of abortion, the support of affirmative action, the legalization
of marijuana, the obligation of the wealthy to pay higher taxes,
and the right of same-sex couples to marriage.
the index of student political engagement continues to go down nationally,
new Oberlin students have remained remarkably steady over several
years in their reported commitment to social causes and to the importance
of making a difference in their communities. Their choice of probable
majors and careers reflects a strong commitment to artistic excellence
and to the pursuit of knowledge. Again compared with their peers
at very highly selective colleges and universities, new Oberlin
students are more likely to indicate interest in careers in the
arts, teaching, and writing.
a word, the freshman survey provides ample evidence that Oberlin
students remain committed to leading meaningful lives, as they have
for 168 years.
Goldsmith is dean of students.