The phrase “Oberlin bubble” is commonly used by students at Oberlin—with
increasing frequency, it seems, as finals approach and the interior of Mudd library
starts to look all too familiar. The phrase encompasses both Oberlin’s supposed political homogeneity as well as its relative geographic isolation. There is an element of truth to the idea of the Oberlin bubble: For most students, the bucolic Ohio countryside and nearby cities remain largely unexplored. Of course, this is not due to any paucity of intrepid Oberlin spirit, but rather is a result of the seemingly inexhaustible plethora of distractions and obligations available on campus.
During my second year at Oberlin, I unexpectedly found myself far afield from the safe confines of the Oberlin campus. Having grown up in Illinois, the flat cornfields and rusted industrial cities of the Midwest have never struck me as being particularly ripe for new and illuminating experiences. Nonetheless, the trips I took to the city of Akron during the cold of Ohio’s winter months introduced me to an entirely new world—a world in which my political and social assumptions were challenged in entirely unexpected ways.
The final project for a documentary production class I was taking that semester was to produce a short documentary film in a group of three or four. Such a task, I was to learn, is considerably more demanding (emotionally, physically, mentally) than one might initially assume. The group I was in, a mix of anthropology, comparative American studies, and cinema studies majors, was interested in exploring the plight of prostitutes living in Ohio. In retrospect, assuming that we would even be able to find any women willing to participate was rather optimistic—the first dozen women we contacted regarded us with a mix of suspicion and disinterest, if they even talked to us at all. Almost miraculously, we eventually met a woman who went by the name of Lilly, a mother of three living in Akron. Lilly also worked as a prostitute. One of her children was around the same age as us, and Lilly treated us much like a mother graciously agreeing to assist in a child’s homework assignment. Lilly welcomed us into her life and introduced us to her friend who also worked as a prostitute.
Spending time with these two women, visiting the motel where they worked as well as the homes where they raised their families, I found myself immersed in a situation full of paradoxes with no easy answers. Lilly was a profoundly religious woman, yet sincerely believed that what she was doing was right. Indeed, prostitution gave Lilly some measure of stability with which she could provide for her children. Yet prostitution also forced her to lead a double life, in which she hid her activities from those she knew and constantly feared that her life would be upended by the police. But it was this very same law enforcement which sought to prevent her from being a prostitute that prevented her from being anything else. Having been caught by the police once before, it was nearly impossible for Lilly to get even a low-paying legal job.
Academic theories of social justice often seem to tempt us with the prospect of easy solutions and clear answers to difficult problems. Thinking about these problems abstractly, from within the “ivory tower” or the “Oberlin bubble,” can indeed be immensely helpful in discovering potential solutions. Yet, as I learned over the course of making this documentary, real human lives inevitably have a complexity far too great to be completely subsumed under any textbook theory. Oberlin is a small and wonderful part of a much larger world. Venturing outside the Oberlin bubble, at least when its many commitments will allow, is an essential and deeply rewarding part of any Oberlin education. The people you meet there may have just as much to teach you as your textbooks and professors.