In 1940 Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel set during the Spanish Civil War, which by then had just ended. The main character is Robert Jordan, an American college teacher of Spanish who, like thousands of other people around the world, has volunteered to join the Spanish Republic in its fight against Franco. He has done this for two reasons: because he loves Spain and because he hates fascism. His job is to blow up a mountain bridge, and for this purpose he connects with a group of guerilla fighters, Spanish peasants. At one point they ask Jordan what he does for a living. “I teach Spanish in a university,” he says. “But why Spanish?” one of the Spaniards asks. “Would it not be easier to teach English since you are English?” (Although Jordan is American the Spaniards call him El inglés.) This leads to an interesting discussion:
“He speaks Spanish as we do,” Anselmo said. “Why should he not teach Spanish?”
“Yes. But it is, in a way, presumptuous for a foreigner to teach Spanish,” Fernando said. ... “Surely you know English better, ... Would it not be better and easier and clearer to teach English?”
“He doesn’t teach it to Spaniards--” Pilar started to intervene.
“I should hope not,” Fernando said.
“Let me finish, you mule,” Pilar said to him. “He teaches Spanish to Americans, North Americans.”
“Can they not speak Spanish?” Fernando asked. “South Americans can.”
“Mule,” Pilar said. “He teaches Spanish to North Americans who speak English.”
“Still and all I think it would be easier for him to teach English if that is what he speaks,” Fernando said.
It’s a bit of a silly passage, but I like it because it talks about the relationship between identity and expertise. Can you understand, learn, or even teach about things that are not already part of who you are? I think that is possible, and one of the reasons I like teaching literature is that literature helps you do that.. In fact, I think it is one of the key things that education is about.
But I also like the passage because I identify with Jordan. Students ask me similar questions all the time. Because my case is even weirder: I am Dutch but teach Spanish to Americans.
I can’t blame my students for wondering what I’m doing here. When you think about it, there is something strange about people who profess a love for a culture that’s not their own, a love so strong they have dedicated their lives to studying it.
I’m personally not quite sure what attracted me to Spanish. All I can say is that I feel very passionate about it and that I love the language and all the cultures that speak it. And I have this strange urge to have other people, like you, become passionate about it too. I discovered this passion late in life. I was born and raised in Amsterdam, and didn’t really learn Spanish till I traveled to Spain and Mexico after high school, when I was 18 like you. I didn’t begin studying it formally until I went to the University of Amsterdam the next year.
From this bit of autobiography you can also deduce that I’ve never actually been a liberal arts student. In Holland you pick your major from the start and then do pretty much just things related to it. So you might wonder, who am I to tell you about the things that make an Oberlin liberal arts education so great? I’m afraid don’t really know the answer to that question, so I’ll resort to an old teacher’s trick. When you don’t know something, you turn the question around. Enough about me, then: why would somebody, anybody, consider coming to Oberlin?
Seriously, why exactly would someone want to spend four years here in this strange place called Oberlin College, a place full of weird people like me who try to contaminate you with their passions? What is this liberal arts thing all about? As it happens, over the past two years many people here have spent some time thinking about that question.
One of the things we realized is that a place like Oberlin can be defined in many different ways. You can think of it as a business that provides a particular service to a particular group of people. In exchange for a lot of money it provides you with an education, so that you can become rich, successful, and happy. Okay, we can’t really guarantee the rich part--but success and happiness are definite possibilities.
But that picture is not entirely right. Oberlin is more than just a store where you buy a diploma as a key to your own personal success. In fact it’s just as easy to turn this around. You might think you’re paying us to help you get ahead, but in reality you are here because we, the faculty, need you like a tree needs water and sun, or like an iPod needs recharging. You help us think and get our scholarship done--our research, books, articles, and creative work. Plus you keep us young. For us this is a great deal, because on top of that, we get paid for using you.
Of course neither of these pictures is right. I think the truth is a combination of the two. Oberlin, you could say, is a special place in Northern Ohio that provides a very selective group of people--students, staff, and faculty--with the means to study, interpret, understand, explain, and represent themselves and the world around them. They do this through learning, teaching, scholarship, and activism--but mostly through talking and working with each other. One of the most important things you will learn here is to express yourself, to engage in dialogue, to respect others’ ideas, and to allow them to change your own.
If you think of Oberlin in this way, like a think tank or an intellectual community, the benefits of what people do here are not just for themselves but potentially for the whole world. And while we faculty tend to stick around, we publish stuff, and of course send a bunch of you guys into that world every year, to go and make it better.
Faculty and students of course each have their own goals and agendas, but the important thing is that both benefit from each other’s presence and feed off each other’s knowledge, experience, and energy. I believe it’s the fact that faculty and students meet and talk with each other constantly that makes this place so interesting and productive.
At Oberlin students are also teachers, and the faculty never stop learning.
When you think of it, the place is full of these kinds of paradoxes.
Who, for example, is really in power? The faculty, you’d think. We give the grades, after all; we decide if you pass or fail, and tell you what to study, read, or write. But that power depends on you: it is gone if no one takes our classes. Sure, we oblige you to do certain things, but we do that like parents would: for your own good, and because we think you secretly want to do them and need a bit of encouragement.
But just like most parents, we can’t make up our minds and give you all kinds of contradictory instructions: First we tell you we want breadth. Do it all, we say--science, humanities, and social science; learn writing and math and art, and don’t forget athletics. And then, suddenly, by the end of the second year we tell you we want depth. Make up your mind already, we tell you, pick a major, specialize! This tension between breadth and depth can be confusing, to us faculty too.
The interesting thing is that we tend to be super specialized ourselves. But we wouldn’t teach at a liberal arts college if we weren’t also interested in the bigger picture. For me, this is one of the best parts about Oberlin: that my students are interested in much more than just what I teach them, and that in any given week they will not only read my assignments but also do history, biology, music, whatever. Sometimes I think most of us faculty are a little bit jealous of you because you get to take all these cool classes.
We are also jealous because it is hard to keep your interests broad as you move up through higher education. Graduate school is especially cruel in forcing you to give up hobbies and such, imposing a kind of monogamy of the mind. Here at Oberlin you get to be promiscuous-- I mean intellectually.
I think that studying at Oberlin will help you resist the pressure toward narrowness later on in life. That will not only insure that you have a life, but in the end it will also make you better at whatever you decide to specialize in. After all, everything is interconnected: you can’t study the environment without understanding physics, chemistry--even music and literature.
Still, the demand to specialize, to pick a major, can cause anxiety: What if you don’t know what you want? Or you want more than one thing?
It might help to remember that Oberlin is not the end of anything, it’s only the beginning. What you learn here, and what you decide your major is, will hopefully be a basis for the future, but it will not determine the rest of your life. You can major in history and still become a doctor.
Oberlin might be the first step in a long chain that leads to a future profession, but you are also being put through this relatively regimented set of experiences to change into a different, more thoughtful, developed, civilized human being.
With respect to you, the students, I think Oberlin’s job really is to do everything possible to help you discover your vocation--your passion, what drives you, what turns you on--and then set you up the best we can to pursue that passion when you leave here.
I thought I would close with five random pieces of advice:
(1) Don’t NOT take a class because you didn’t like the subject (or teacher) in high school. Things can be really different here.
(2) Learn a foreign language and study abroad.
(3) Use your summers and Winter Terms wisely--try for them to connect with what you do at Oberlin or would like to do when you leave. Travel. Work. Do internships.
(4) Be smarter than George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. I know that sounds really easy, but what I mean is this: Have an exit strategy. Live the moment but never stop thinking about life after Oberlin. If there’s a remote chance you might want to go to law school, find out what courses you should take. Always keep your options open.
And finally, (5) Allow yourself to discover what turns you on, at least intellectually, and allow us and your fellow students to help you with that.