Oberlin Blogs

On Seminars

October 15, 2014

With six weeks of experience at Oberlin, I have entrenched myself into an effective routine. This routine involves a mixture of classes, community service, classwork, my daily dose of the New York Times, and guest speakers and seminars. I am interested in economics, and I find myself thinking like an economist when trying to determine the extracurricular activities to which I devote my time. Should I go to this talk on climate change or will I regret that decision when I have to complete all my first-year seminar reading tomorrow night?

I like being forced to make these decisions, though. This forced decision-making suggests the excessive quantity of great activities at Oberlin worth attending. I have enjoyed attending guest lectures, convocations, and seminars immensely, and I try to fit as many into my schedule as possible. Every Sunday I look at particular events on the Oberlin events calendar for the upcoming week. I have been amazed by the diversity in seminar topics so far this year. I thought I would share my experience last week as I balanced the demands of college with two rather interesting seminars which helped kickstart and conclude my school week.

Monday is usually my busiest day of the week. Three classes and bowling practice wipe me out. However, Professor Lasser (of the history department) recommended a seminar by Brent Morris, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Professor Morris had completed his dissertation at Cornell on Oberlin's history, of all things. I took advantage of this opportunity to learn about early Oberlin.

Professor Morris began his talk by letting the audience know how nervous he was discussing Oberlin to an audience comprised of Oberlin's citizenry. The crowd responded with giggles, grins, and mild laughter. Regardless of his proclaimed nervousness, Professor Morris's understanding of Oberlin's early history was fascinating.

The overarching theme of his talk was Oberlin's start rooted in ideology influenced by evangelism during the Second Great Awakening. He talked extensively about the utopian mission of Oberlin's founders which caused it to fully integrate the college during the antebellum period pre-Civil War. Before any blood was shed in the Civil War Oberlin had achieved a rudimentary form of racial and gender equality. An African American student could room with a white student and learn rigorous course material side by side from the same professor. There are caveats in this utopian, inclusive system which still perplex historians. For example, during the antebellum period Oberlin's student body never included more than 3 percent African American students. However, ideas of inclusion and social justice, which motivate many Oberlin students today, are ideas rooted deeply in Oberlin's long history as a school devoted to abolition and equality among all students.

I ended my week with an equally interesting panel discussion on conflict resolution in Iran. Panelists included Joseph Elder, William Green Miller, and Ja'far Mahallati who are respectively an Oberlin graduate in 1951 who received his doctorate from Harvard in sociology, former American ambassador to Ukraine, and former Iranian diplomat to the UN.

The panelists portrayed the conflict between the West and Iran with great specificity and nuance. Professor Mahallati provided a really thoughtful anecdote which has stayed with me. He said that every morning he wakes up, takes a shower with soap (first used by Muslims), drinks coffee which is a drink first discovered by Muslims, and then drives to work in a Western creation. Professor Mahallati then asked: why are Muslim and Western societies, which are both interdependent on each other, unable to coexist peacefully?

Former Ambassador Miller provided an equally sobering question after analyzing the audience's demographic construction, "I see many in the audience with gray and white hair. Can any of you think of an extended period of time in your lives when the United States was not at war?" Professor Mahallati ended the discussion by critiquing the current paradigm in which combatants seek justice and retaliate against opposing actors. He advocated instead for a system of empathy and discussion as means to resolve conflict.

As I concluded my week I reflected on these two seminars, and I started to realize that the underlying theme of the first had given rise to the second. Professor Morris discussed the utopian idealistic foundation on which Oberlin was created. The idealism has changed as new issues have arisen, yet a pervasive antagonism and drive toward reaching an optimal society has remained. It might seem hyperbolic, but a group of Obies collaborating on the problem of Iranian conflict resolution is just a present-day manifestation of Oberlin's long history of striving for the ideal world.

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