The Convocation Talk that has Oberlin Buzzing
September 17, 2015
Over the years, Oberlin has had many brilliant Convocation speakers. But Bryan Stevenson’s talk on September 9 keeps resonating with me. Many of my friends, colleagues, and some of my students also found his talk inspiring.
One theme that really struck me was Stevenson’s determination to use education as a tool to fight poverty and injustice and to improve individual lives and our society. You may recall his story about how an internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta defending prisoners facing the death penalty transformed him from a disaffected first-year at Harvard Law School into a man on a social justice mission. He returned to school and spent every waking hour in the law library because he realized a person with a law degree could make the law work for the disadvantaged. He has built a remarkable career doing just that.
Stevenson’s deeds and words were a reminder that Oberlin’s deep and enduring involvement with social justice issues has always been powered by higher education. As I said in my remarks to our first-years and their parents, studying at Oberlin—acquiring as broad and deep an education as you possibly can—will help you be even more effective advocates for causes you support. The most important thing students do here is learn. That learning transforms their lives and can help them make a difference in our world.
Other aspects of Stevenson’s life and work that were striking were his determination, his compassion, and his ability to listen to others even if they do not share or even oppose his views. The latter characteristic seems to be partly who he is as a person and partly his legal training with its emphasis on fully understanding your opposition’s arguments so you can counter them.
Determination, compassion, and listening to the views of others are qualities we value at Oberlin. We are proud that our students, faculty, and staff are able to engage in sometimes difficult conversations about tough issues facing our society. We are proud that Oberlin is a community that cherishes academic freedom and diversity of opinions and ideas. We work to embrace and learn from our differences and to build a community of engagement where everyone feels valued and included.
Bryan Stevenson didn’t study at Oberlin, but he exemplifies our belief in education’s power to help one person change the world. He has set the bar very high for the remaining Convocation speakers this fall: novelist Zadie Smith on September 29; investigative journalist Sonia Shah ’90 on October 27; and entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt on November 5.
I mentioned in my September 10 column that many Oberlin faculty members are not just great teachers and scholars but also recognized leaders in their chosen fields. I have since learned that James Dobbins, James H. Fairchild professor of religion and East Asian studies, was recently appointed coeditor of the Journal of Japanese Studies for a three-year term. The Journal is the most influential journal dealing with research on Japan in the United States. It is a multidisciplinary forum for communicating new information, new interpretations, and recent research results concerning Japan to the English-reading world.
Congratulations, Professor Dobbins, on this outstanding achievement!
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