June 4, 2009
John West ’10
I was raised in a family of lawyers. My dad, my sister, my sister's husband, my brother: they're all lawyers. The result of this is that (1) I know a lot of dead lawyer jokes, and (2) I was raised arguing. And this has, undoubtedly, had a deep effect on what I do now. While I have no desire to become a lawyer, I still love to argue. I'm a philosophy major in the College--which means, for all intents and purposes, that I study and analyze arguments.
It is in this context that I write this post; after all, disagreeing with a colleague is delicate business, particularly when that colleague is kind of your boss. I am referring, of course, to Charles Grim of the Admissions Department who blogs here. A few weeks ago, he wrote a post, with which I took some umbrage.
After letting a response rattle around the old brain box for a week or so, I've decided that, as his post was about Oberlin being accommodating of alternate points of view, I should just bite the bullet and respond.
The last two paragraphs of Mr. Grim's post piqued my interest; he wrote:
As you probably know, Oberlin College has a largely deserved reputation as being a very liberal college. The Princeton Review, for example, says that we put the "liberal" in liberal arts. So I think that it is particularly striking that Mr. Haass who has worked for two different Republican administrations is both an alumnus and our commencement speaker. This should indicate that Oberlin is a place for students of all political persuasions. It is also a place where diverse views are actively sought out and, perhaps more importantly, considered carefully by the campus community. Further evidence of this openness was a very well attended lecture by Newt Gingrich last fall.
After all, a college education is something that should leave you more knowledgeable and more capable of reaching your own informed opinion than when you left high school. It is hard to imagine how one can learn much when surrounded only by views the same as your own.
Now, I agree with much of this, but I think Mr. Grim is overstating his case somewhat. Of course, his argument is only a sketch (and I am looking forward to his thoughts on what I'm saying here) but he seems to be arguing that (and, please, Mr. Grim, let me know if I'm misstating your argument),
(1) Oberlin is a very liberal place, but (2) Oberlin invites many conservatives to speak; therefore, ____ (3) "Oberlin is a place for students of all political persuasions," and, (4) Oberlin is a place "where diverse views are actively sought out and ... considered carefully by the campus community."
Let's consider his argument piece by piece. (1) is pretty uncontroversial. Oberlin's liberal reputation is deserved. One only need to spend about five minutes on campus to figure that one out. (2), on the other hand, is a little more problematic. First of all, that the college invites conservatives to speak says very little about what the student body thinks or feels. Indeed, the evidence provided by Mr. Grim has nothing to do with the student body.
Given these misgivings about (2), it's hard to see how Mr. Grim's first conclusion (3), that "Oberlin is a place for students of all political persuasions," is supported by his argument. And Mr. Grim's second conclusion (4), that Oberlin is a place "where diverse views are actively sought out and ... considered carefully by the campus community," would have to be amended such that it was made clear that the College administration feels this way, not necessarily the College's students.
Of course, while one might disagree with how Mr. Grim reaches his conclusions, it doesn't follow that his conclusions must be wrong. Indeed, I would agree, at least in part, with Mr. Grim.
The fact is that, though there is a small but outspoken group of conservatives at Oberlin, they are largely isolated from the main political discourse at Oberlin. I'm reminded of The OC Republicans' Cara Lawler and Professor Tim Hall's specious and equivocating Op-Ed in The Oberlin Review, which was either roundly panned (as in The Grape) or simply ignored. And, while the response to Gingrich's speech was fairly tempered, this isn't saying much as Gingrich restricted himself to punditry, not active political persuasion.
The real political dialectic at Oberlin is not liberal/conservative but liberal/socialist--to be imprecise. The debate is over how much liberals should trust the free market to deliver on liberal goals, not the goals themselves. The debate is between the liberal ironists, who are content to raise consciousness, and liberal revolutionaries, who want to overturn our institutions in total.
This is the debate we have when we stay up late at night. This is the debate we have in our papers, in our professors' office hours, with our roommates and friends.
So, I would agree with Mr. Grim that Oberlin is a place "where diverse views are actively sought out and ... considered carefully by the campus community." But the movement conservatism of Tom Tancrado, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich is absent from this debate--except when it is used as a punching bag.
So, in this sense, Oberlin might not be the most welcoming place for young movement conservatives--unless you don't mind being shut out of the debate.
All of this said, more heady conservatism (i.e. intellectual libertarianism) is a presence on campus, and while this view is not as influential as more mainstream liberal views, it's here, and it's probably here to stay. But, fair warning, Oberliners like to talk politics. We're an opinionated bunch, so, if you're some kind of libertarian or a principled conservative (that rare and dying breed), you'd better be ready to have your views challenged.
So where are we with Mr. Grim's argument? I would say that Oberlin students do indeed seek out some different points of view. And, furthermore, you can be a conservative and have your view respected at Oberlin--provided your conservatism isn't the (frankly) intellectually bankrupt brand so often practiced in the national discourse.
I imagine that some of what I've written here is pretty controversial. And it seems, perhaps, at odds with Mr. Grim's laudable point that, "after all, a college education is something that should leave you more knowledgeable and more capable of reaching your own informed opinion than when you left high school. It is hard to imagine how one can learn much when surrounded only by views the same as your own."
I hope, though, that I've demonstrated that Oberlin does have an active debate--it's just not the same one you see if you turn on Fox News.
And that's a good thing. I consider myself a tolerant guy, but it's hard not to want to pull out your hair when Newt Gingrich calls Sotomayor a racist, or when Tom Tancado says that La Raza is "a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses." It's hard to watch the constant lies and half-truths and brazen opportunism that passes for "responsible" debate from the movement conservatives and not wonder how are these people taken seriously?.
I, for one, am glad they are not taken seriously at Oberlin.
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