Campus News

Making the Founders Proud

December 3, 2013
Marvin Krislov
Photo credit: John Seyfried

On the morning of December 3, 1833, a group of 30 students gathered in the “boarding house,” the only frame building in Oberlin—then a new town being hacked from the dense, damp forest of central Lorain County. They formed the first class to be taught at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.

John Frederick Scovill, their youthful teacher, wrote to a friend in a letter dated December 17, 1833, “The grand object of this Institution is to educate those who shall be prepared physically, as well as intellectually and morally, to illuminate the world with the light of Science & civilization.”

Those lofty aims came from Oberlin’s founders, the Reverend John J. Shipherd and the missionary and inventor Philo P. Stewart. They established the “colony” and school that became this community—college and city—in part on principles articulated by Jean Frederic Oberlin, a charismatic and innovative Alsatian pastor, educator, and philanthropist whom they never met.

Professor Robert Samuel Fletcher wrote in his book A History of Oberlin College From Its Foundation Through the Civil War, “The name given to the colony and school was derived from a little book published in 1830 by the American Sunday School Union: The Life of Jean Frederic Oberlin, Pastor of Waldbach, in the Ban de la Roche.

The genius of our founders’ ideas has evolved through the years through the agency of Oberlin’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni. This Founders’ Day we pay tribute to the many faculty and staff who have inspired our students and alumni. For each of us, it is worth pondering the ways in which our lives have been changed by dedicated faculty and staff members.

I still cherish moments in my undergraduate education, such as a lecture by American historian Edmund Morgan on the Salem witch trials. He reminded the class that when the community realized what it had done, it engaged in communal penance, a collective acceptance of responsibility. Professor Morgan implicitly asked us to think about contemporary attitudes toward communal misdeeds.

I remember my English professor guiding us through an exegesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses after we had read The Odyssey earlier that semester. During my undergraduate days, teachers also asked me tough questions about government regulation of various industries. And I recall delving into 19th-century realism in art and studying how artists led us to empathize with peasants and workers. Thinking of empathy, I shall always remember the kindness and understanding of various faculty and staff during some of my more challenging moments—such as needing help with a case of “writers’ block” when I was behind on my senior essay. Yikes!

I would love to hear about teachers and staff who have taught, influenced, and mentored you. As we wrap up this semester, it’s worth remembering the transformative experiences that we have every day—whether as faculty, staff or students. It’s a wonderful time to thank our faculty and staff, students, and vice versa. This communal living and learning experience in our college and community would make our founders extremely proud.

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