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What's in a name? A college by any other ...

September 23, 2008

Charles Grim

Tuesday, September 23, 2008, 6:16 am
United World College of the Adriatic, Duino, Italy

Good morning from the shores of the Adriatic. As I look out the window of my room here on campus I can see the moon reflecting off the water and, off in the distance, Slovenia. We (Sid Dalby from Smith and I) arrived at about noon yesterday and were joined a couple hours later by two admissions people from Methodist College in North Carolina. After a joint presentation to 25 or so students, we did a few mini interviews, had a great dinner on the waterfront, and got back on campus just in time to catch the very end of the Asia week fashion show that the Asian students here were holding.

Stepping back in time just a bit, in my last report I mentioned some of the sights that we saw in Rome, but failed to deliver on a promise to expand a bit on some of them. The Spanish Steps are a tourist favorite. They cascade from a beautiful Renaissance church (whose name I can't precisely recall - something like Trinity on the Mont I think) down to Piazza di Spagna. Notice that I can easily recall what is at the bottom of the Spanish Steps - which goes to show you how important a name is.

Did you ever wonder where Oberlin got its name? The College and the town of Oberlin were both named after a minister who lived in the Alsace region of France in the late 18th century. John Frederick Oberlin devoted the first half of his life to promoting universal elementary education at a time and in a place where very few people knew how to read and write, and he spent the second half of his life promoting adequate health care to increase the number of children who actually lived long enough to get an elementary education. The people who founded Oberlin thought that this was precisely the kind of role model that they hoped future Oberlin students would emulate. They sought to educate students who would devote some of their own time and talent to making the world a better place. As a result of this, Oberlin has always been a place where contributing to making the world a better place has been of preeminent importance. Last year, for instance, Oberlin students did more than 60,000 hours of community service that we know of and none of it was required. Because of our traditions, that's just the kind of people who choose Oberlin. And if you don't think names matter, look up the official name of the Spanish Steps and then ponder which end of the steps we remember.

After the Spanish steps and an incredibly salty lunch, we stopped to toss a few coins (euros, of course) into the Trevi Fountain. I don't know how the tradition started, but tossing coins in this particular fountain is supposed to assure that one returns to Rome. It worked last time I was in Rome, so who am I to argue with tradition?

This morning I just can't seem to resist talking about Oberlin College, and writing about traditions reminded me that when I was in Tokyo the other day I was reading one of the school papers wherein it mentioned that three of the schools I visited had put on a joint performance of the show Fiddler on the Roof. [We interrupt this blog to bring you breaking news!!! I just heard sea lions barking. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog.] If you haven't seen the show, find a copy on DVD and watch it. Anyway, the opening premise of the show is that without traditions life would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof. After warning us of this, the show goes on to explore the day-to-day experiences of Tevye and Golda and their daughters, a family of Jews who live in Russia around the time of the Russian Revolution. As the story unfolds, the realities of life and love convince Tevye to break tradition after tradition.

Like Tevye, Oberlin is very traditional. In our case in the way that we are outwardly similar to most great liberal arts colleges: residential, small classes, focus on a broad education, the great majority of our alumni continue their education beyond the B.A. degree, etc. But like Tevye, Oberlin isn't afraid to break with traditions either. That's why in 1835, almost 30 years before the US Civil War, Oberlin became the first college or university to have a policy to admit students regardless of race. Two years later, Oberlin invented coeducation, becoming the first US school to offer bachelors degrees to women alongside men. We have the oldest continuously operating conservatory of music. Remember that in the 19th century higher education was typically rich, white guys studying Latin, Greek, philosophy, math, and probably religion. Little Oberlin College in the wilderness of Ohio said why not African-Americans? Why not women? Why not study music? Later we were the first liberal arts college to offer East Asian Studies and neuroscience. We even made the cover of Life magazine for having the first coed residence halls. So if you are someone who thinks that the status quo needs to be shaken up once in a while, then you should continue to think about Oberlin; we've been shaking that poor fiddler since our very founding. Luckily our conservatory seems pretty adept at teaching balance as well as music.

Let me finish with two other tourist sites in Rome that bear mentioning and I'll try to refrain from any more Oberlin cheerleading for this morning. Trajan's column is an important architectural piece as it is a very narrow column that incorporates an interior stairwell. I find myself particularly drawn to Trajan's column because of the fact that wrapped around the exterior of the column is the history of the Roman emperor Trajan's adventures in Dacia and Thracia. These two ancient kingdoms occupied much of what is now Bulgaria, and as I mentioned previously I lived in Bulgaria for eight years and enjoyed exploring some of the many Roman ruins still existing there.

Finally, a thought about the Coliseum. As I've traveled around the world, I've encountered a number of famous historical sites. While all are interesting, many tend to be somewhat less impressive than what I imagined them to be. But the Roman Coliseum along with the Great Wall of China and especially the Pyramids at Giza are the three places that have struck me as being even more impressive than I could imagine. I hope that if/when you come to Oberlin, you'll have that same feeling about us.

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