What will Oberlin students need to thrive in the 21st century? In his February 4 Finney Chapel address, "The Crucible of the Culture Wars," Ronald Takaki, a University of California at Berkeley professor of ethnic studies, discussed why, now more than ever, educated people must have a more accurate understanding of our nation's history.
Takaki espouses an intellectual approach to the study of America's racial and cultural diversity. The author of eight books, including Iron Curtain: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, he has explored how the Western concepts of democracy and equality have become American; "how excluded groups claimed those principles and made them more."
Throughout our nation's history, people have "confronted the contradictions" in society, he said. Thomas Jefferson confronted contradictions when he penned the Declaration of Independence; Abraham Lincoln elucidated those concepts by redefining the notion of to whom they applied. And the confrontation continues. "We are an unfinished nation," Professor Takaki told his Finney Chapel audience. "We are still struggling to achieve our national promise."
Takaki acknowledged that multiculturalism in the classroom has its opponents and is often dismissed as identity politics. "There is a narrow ethnic nationalism that can be restrictive and problematic," he admitted, although he believes such pitfalls can be avoided by encouraging students to study ethnicities other than their own, and to incorporate what they learn into a larger context.
Professor Takaki's visit to campus was the second in the all-campus convocation series. Initiated by President Nancy S. Dye last fall with Cornel West's September visit, the series is designed to "bring our community together to discuss a topic of common concern, a shared conversation about important issues of the day," she said.
The West and Takaki visits involved more than an hour-long speech followed by a question-and-answer session. Copies of their books were distributed on campus, and forums were organized for faculty members and students to discuss the issues presented in each convocation. Takaki spent two days on campus, during which he met with faculty members in a mini-workshop, Expanding the Multicultural Curriculum.
Convocations "are great for unifying the campus around a particular event," said Assistant Dean Shilpa Davé of the Division of Student Life and Service's Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), but it's important to maintain that unity. The MRC organized a series of discussions focusing on particular chapters of A Distant Mirror, with faculty members leading the discussions.
"I hope to see this series become an integral part of campus life," said Dye. "Many alumni have told me how important convocations have been in the past. We are trying to recreate a sense of Oberlin as an intellectual and artistic community."
Benson Tong, visiting associate professor of history, also hopes the convocations will be integrated into campus life. "We must find bridges between different disciplines," he said. "We can never become complacent about the state of our teaching and scholarship; we must devise a means through which we can create a synthetic understanding of the past, present, and future."
--Cynthia Nickoloff '88
Return to the ATS-May/June 1997 Table of Contents