On the ethos of Obies
Wendell Russell, Jr. ’71
“My Oberlin was very much a time and place of social ferment and activism, and while the issues may be different today, I know that Oberlin students will always be deeply involved in cutting edge social change.”
In the fall of 1967, I began my freshman year at Oberlin. As I was born in Oberlin and moved to New York City when I was eight, college meant returning home. Although I did not know it then, my first year would turn out to be a pivotal time in the transition of Oberlin, from a calm mid-western college into a storm of social change.
The first sign of change that I recall was the elimination of the freshman beanie, the circular hats that had been a tradition for first-year students for many years. I remember that at the time I was somewhat upset about this; being somewhat of a traditionalist, I wanted to have the full first year experience with nothing left out! It was easier to accept the relaxation of the dinner dress code, although we still had family style sit down meals served by student waiters and waitresses. I will never forget the formality of standing at one’s dinner table place and waiting as the student head waiter escorted the Dorm Mother of Dascomb Hall to her place at her table. Only after she had been seated could we all sit down.
Another tradition was required Assembly at Finney Chapel. That was a weekly event and we each had to turn in an attendance slip. We also had the traditional panty raid on the women’s dorms and while that may seem very quaint now, you must remember that this was a time when there were no co-ed dorms and the campus was divided by sex with the men living on North Campus and the women living on South Campus.
This was also the time of parietal rules. For example, men were not allowed in the women’s dorms residential areas except for designated times. You were not supposed to be in a room with a member of the opposite sex unless the door was open at least the width of a waste paper can. Despite all this, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” were very much the hallmark of our generation. During my four years at Oberlin, the walls of these social regulations started to crack.
The important social issues of the time included civil rights, the movement against the war in Vietnam, the Black Liberation Movement and the beginnings of what was known as the Women’s Liberation Movement. The point of these memories is that my Oberlin was very much a time and place of social ferment and activism and while the issues may be different today, I know that Oberlin students will always be deeply involved in cutting edge social change. My generation had the personal exposure of a draft system into the military that was engaged in fighting what many considered to be an unnecessary and unjust war, and today’s young people may feel personal pressure to fight against climate change and the destruction of habitat around the world.
Oberlin students have always been passionate or deemed “radical” activists for the social causes they believe in. They have also been deep thinkers, serious learners and masterful musicians and artists. While from an historical perspective, my Oberlin years were a particularly intense period of social and cultural ferment, Oberlin is always an intense environment of highly intelligent and talented people actively engaged in life and the world around them.
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